In our office here in China there is a girl. For the sake of polite non-accusatory and anonymous argument, let’s call her ‘Alison.’ Up until four days ago, I thought ‘Alison’ was the nicest, politest, meekest and most overwhelmingly peaceable person I had ever met. I’d remarked before on how she seemed to embody that stereotypically indeterminate midpoint whereby ‘being shy’ and ‘being terrified’ intersect. This is because at times it can be tricky – as a male foreigner – interacting with women in China, and this inscrutable behaviour (i.e. not being sure if someone is just shy or actively scared of you) as evidenced by our here Alison typifies a hefty chunk of your interactions. With Chinese men it’s pretty easy, and if you pick one of a) drinking b) smoking c) card games or d) team sport, and engage in aforesaid activity with aforesaid men for an agreeably short amount of time, you’ll gain a new zui haode pengyou in minutes. Unfortunately, there is nothing so simple when its across genders.
Eggshell Walking Boots: On
Now, I realise I am walking on extremely treacherous ground here. As it’s the central tenet of this blog, it’s fairly obvious I don’t feel bad talking about cross-cultural divides. Usually this can be quite contentious (it’s spelt “racism”), but the thing is, all I really need are my pseudo-amateurish observations. It’s simple: if I see something that is different from my culture, I am qualified to talk about it because a) I am from that culture and b) I live in this culture. Easy peasy. However, the tightrope line of argument I’m currently wobbling down is especially tricky seeing as a) I am not a woman and b) I am not a Chinese woman. Who’dve thunk it? For that reason, it’s entirely possible I don’t know what the bollocks I’m talking about, and I should probably be disqualified for having one too many appendages. However, I tiptoed my way through the University of York’s most severe feminist death panels (18th century British and Irish literature seminars) with only the most perfunctory of maulings, which for an 19 year old from an all boys’ school was quite a feat. It was during these anti-chauvinist grillings I discovered that sometimes you get extra credit for showing your work, even if you arrive at completely the wrong answer. Sometimes trying to understand, and concluding that you can’t, is much better than not trying at all.
So I’m going to plough on…
Different Language, Different Personality
Alison to the left, my good self on the right. China hasn't changed me.
So back to Alison. Last Friday, the nice lady with the keys to our office decided she was going to have a little lie-in. For an hour and half. There isn’t much of a lobby outside our warehouse, and ninety minutes hunched on a linoleum tiled floor waiting for her to turn up left us all a little chilly and a lot irked. And sweet baby french-fry Jesus, Alison was miffed. Yelling in the loudest, angriest, machine-gun-quickest (and probably most foul-mouthed) Mandarin I’d ever heard, she spent a good half an hour calling the poor key lady every three minutes to ream her out. Previously, every single time she had spoken to me in English she had been unfailingly quiet and polite, but now all of a sudden she had turned into Little Miss Foghorn. It was unexpected to say the least. I think I rid the world of possibly three or four buzzy flying things in my agape state.
He has two specialities: fractal calculus and punching himself in the face.
When higher brain function finally returned, it brought with it thoughts about how the language gap, and indeed speaking in a different language, might actually lead you to act and think in different ways. There has been quite a lot of research on this, and if you can be bothered, you can check out some of it here, here and here. The best is by a guy called Malcolm Gladwell, who argues in a book called Outliers that the reason Asian students show a particular aptitude for mathematics is because the concepts are much more easily explained in Oriental languages. In Mandarin, to say “eleven” you just say the equivalent of “ten one” (shi yi); for forty two it’s “four ten two” (si shi er) and so on. Fractions are even easier, where for “one quarter” you say “from four, take one,” which is basically the whole mathematical idea rather neatly encapsulated in words. Gladwell is basically saying that people who speak Mandarin are at a natural advantage when it comes to mathematics because of an in-built linguist predisposition. He also says that Westerners don’t ‘get’ maths as easily because “it doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.”
Physical and Psychological Impacts
It’s not all in your mind either: speaking a different language can cause physical differences too. In Chinese there is no “v” sound, so when I tried to teach my students words like volcano and vampire (I taught cool lessons), they came out as waaaaampire and woooooooolcano. Which was hilarious for me, but not so good for their fluency: they sounded like Mr Chekov:
The inability to pronounce sounds alien to your own tongue is not just consigned to the Chinese either. Many people pronounce the Scottish word for lake (i.e ‘Loch’ Ness) as “lock” instead of ending the word with the throat-clearing cccchhhhccckkk sound that it actually should be, the tongue-rolling rrrr’s in Spanish can be extremely tricky and the guttural clicking noises in Khoisan languages give people from the Anglosphere nightmares. Of course, some people can be taught (I get the rrr’s maybe 30% of the time), but at least on a small scale the language you speak can cause physical differences.
I was also having a discussion the other day with someone infinitely more observant than I about how French people seem to have a different mouth-shape than English-speakers. I had no idea and assumed that it was to do with the whole “Gallic shrug” and “Europeans-are-just-more-expressive-than-you-uptight-snooty-and-most-likely-sexually-repressed-Brits” thing. Not (necessarily) so, apparently. The theory is that the different movements used when forming sounds alien to English end up causing different facial features to develop over time; features that don’t really exist on non-French speaking faces. Not wholly scientific I admit, but extremely interesting all the same.
So, if the language you speak can impact the way we think and the way we look, why not the way we behave? It’s not just Alison where I have seen this seemingly split-personality in China; in my experience, this has been true of a great deal of the Chinese women I’ve met. Teachers at my school who seemed so shy and giggly in English would suddenly become fire-breathing Chinese dragon-ladies when yelling at an unfortunate third grader (it was always third-grade, the hellions) in Mandarin. I also once saw my very charming and demure Mandarin tutor dressed in a kinky sailor outfit yelling at some pervy old man in a Chinese nightclub. Most amusing. OK fine, I’ll exclude times like the latter when alcohol is involved (in its great and oft-overlooked capacity as Cultural Leveller), but even then, the most common character traits that have emerged from English interactions with Chinese women seem to tend towards the diminutive and submissive. And I say that painfully aware of the stereotype.
Linguistic Lessons Learned?
However, when I brought my other braincell down off the shelf, I started to wonder. Alison’s English is pretty damn good, but it is still her second language so whenever she is talking to me it’s probably a little harder for her to get the words she wants to out. Talking softly and quietly is conducive to getting it right, or rather not getting it wrong, which is an important distinction to make in a face-saving culture like China’s. Moreover, our interactions are usually inane small-talk (weather, work, weather, air quality, weather, evil boss, weather, etc) which aren’t exactly the most provocative or emotive topics. This wondering then stepped up a notch when I realised it was taking a depressingly familiar turn. I started to wonder if, as usual, it was wholly My Fault. Maybe she usually is loud and ballsy, it’s just when she’s forced to speak in English (to a tall scary white man no less) she comes across as different. Perhaps I am mistaking linguistic non-proficiency with the character trait of shyness.
In truth, Ockham’s Razor wins again: it’s probably a lot more to do with me being a big, white non-Chinese-speaking foreigner than it is bilingualism causing rampant bipolarism (aaaaall the -isms) amongst China’s female population. That said, there is definitely something to the idea that speaking in a particular way will cause you to think a particular way and therefore act a particular way as well. Whether that manifests itself in personality shifts is debatable, but there does seem to be some fairly weighty circumstantial evidence to suggest that something is going on. The whole notion of words existing in some languages but not in others lends at least some credence to the notion that different languages cause different thought processes. Examples include loanwords like ‘schadenfreude’ and concepts that don’t really have counterparts in other languages, like the idea of l’esprit d’escalier from the French or the lack of a word “privacy” in Chinese. Not conclusive, but definitely indicators of a sort.
I’ll end with a spectacularly pretentious quote from a Frenchman called François de La Rochefoucauld (I know, hard to believe he’s from France) which is a nice little riff on what I’ve been rambling about. Hopefully the meaning hasn’t been lost in translation.
The accent of one’s country dwells in the mind and in the heart as much as in the language…
Indubitably. Or true dat. Same same.