Let's consider an example. I'm visiting a Chinese friend, and dinnertime rolls around.
Friend: "I'm going to start cooking dinner. Would you like to stay and eat with me?"
Me: "That's very kind, but I should really get going."
What conclusions would you draw from this?
A. My friend wants to invite me for dinner.
B. I am busy and do not wish to eat dinner with my friend.
C. Both A and B.
D. Neither A nor B.
In the traditional Chinese world, the answer is D. No information whatsoever was communicated in this exchange. All the words we uttered? Meaningless.
If the host really wants me to stay, he must repeat his invitation another two to five times. If I really want to leave, I must deny those subsequent invitations. What if I actually did want to stay for dinner? I still must reply no at least the first two times to be polite, and then I can change to "if it's not too inconvenient".
This is so inefficient.
There are cases where the guest accepts the invitation, but the host didn't actually want him to stay. I've heard of hosts disabling their stove so that it appears non-functional. "I was really looking forward to cooking for you," they say to their guest, "but my stove seems to have broken." After the guest leaves, the host reconnects the stove and cooks their own dinner.
Another effect is that when I say what I truly mean, it gets warped in the ears of the listener. Let's say my friend Ping asks to stay at my house while visiting the Bay Area. I would like to host him for a weekend, but no more. If I actually say that, he will interpret it as a blanket no. He will say nothing at the time, but will complain about it once a year for the next 35 years. (This will the subject for a future blog post concerning "Statute of Limitations if the Complainer Said Nothing When the Deed Went Down".)
So I must actually construct a convoluted tale about how I'd love to host him for as long as possible, but I have an event on the subsequent Monday that may necessitate using my entire house. Then he applies the appropriate filters to get back my original messaging.
A meta-issue is that when I don't abide by this rule, the typical response I get is "Wow, you're really Americanized." This is delivered in the same tone of voice and expression of disgust as if the person were saying, "Wow, you're really covered in menstrual blood."
So then I have a choice. Either I admit that I have forgotten my roots and lost my heritage and can't wait to dye my hair blonde and eat a dozen cheeseburgers, or I have to agree to the script.
Recently I was told that the Italian expectation is that both parties will be straightforward. If the host doesn't want the guest to stay, he'll just say so. In fact, if he does invite his guest, and he changes his mind later, he's not allowed to complain by societal convention.
Henceforth I am adopting the Italian way in this regard.
When Chinese people say "Wow, so that's what people turn into if they grow up in America," I will say, "NO! This is the Italian way."
Then I will pull out my Italian Rosetta Stone and say, "Il bambino corre."