Wednesday, May 28, 2008

the Italian Way

Recently I take umbrage at the Chinese tradition of overly polite offers.

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."


Anonymous said...

But how do the Italians feel about menstrual blood?

Karim said...

I actually don't agree much with your vision, though it should be the one people should adopt in almost all situations: Mean what they say and say what they mean.

Where I live (Northern Africa) The polite answer for: "I'm going to start cooking dinner. Would you like to stay and eat with me?" is exactly :"That's very kind, but I should really get going." Because someone who wants you to stay won't say: "would you like to stay" but will say in a very sympathic and yelling voice: "Let's have a diner together. You will stay, you don't have any other choice, so please don't go."

While when he simply asks: "I'm going to start cooking dinner. Would you like to stay and eat with me?" he's just being polite and like we often say here: He's polite to ask, be more polite and refuse :) You never know if he actually has something to offer for dinner...

Food questions aren't that evident for everyone everywhere on this planet ;-)

white guy said...

if i had a nickel for everytime i've thought about how annoying this is...

Syed F Ahmad said...

I grew-up in Pakistan. Amazingly, everything you said in this Blog entry totally resonates with my experiences also! And not surprisingly, I get labeled as "American" by those selected folks :-)

Todd B. said...

Seriously, though. You seem to me to be the "direct" type, so why play games and beat around the bush?

Joan Leong said...

I totally agree with you on this. I hate it when people beat around the bush to get their points across, and don't exactly say what they mean. And I get told off for being non-PR like. ;)

It's not an Americanised thing. It's just being efficient because we don't have time to waste in being stupidly polite

Oh btw, I'm Howard's friend.

Niniane said...

Hi Joan, Howard's friend. A random Singaporean friend actually forwarded me your blog many months ago.

StagHill said...

It really depends on the people you face, for myself, usually if I don't want to stay, I just tell the reason to the host and go away. And I've never meet a host repeat their invitation more than twice.

another anonymous said...

Hi Niniane
as a Southern Italian, I have to completely disagree with what you say about Italians being direct (at least in the South). On the contrary - it's a lot more like the situation you describe - there's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and polite refusals before a meal/coffee/drink/etc is accepted...

Philipp Lenssen said...

I remember one time I asked a friend if we wanted to go out that night. I forgot the details but he responded something like, "No, I prefer stay home tonight and relax, and because you're my friend, you deserve I don't make up any excuses now... let's meet some other time." We did, of course, and he's a great guy and I was honored to receive his straight-forward answer.

In another situation, at work, my other friend who quit was about to move to another city. A manager told him a good-bye going something like "When I'm in your new town for a visit, I will make sure to meet you, so this won't be really good-bye." My friend -- who I should add is a programmer living in the realms of logic -- I think took her words literally, and not as a rite to mellow the good-bye (whatever it really meant, I don't know either, of course).

By the way, not sure what you're seeing exactly as the meaning of your roots vs americanization, but just to give you another view, here in Germany american behavior (certainly a generalization in itself) is generally seen as incredibly polite and non-direct, to the point that you won't ever know if you've gotten yourself in some conflicts or if the other party currently heavily disagrees with something. Conversely I suppose some German behavior is considered rude and direct even when it is not meant that way (it actually depends a lot on the specific city in Germany, too). And yeah, a lot of Germans have blond hair.

Politeness is not all that bad, though. Sometimes, it allows us to keep face, and also, to reconsider options privately with more time to reflect on them. (Though, then it should also not lead to any later subtle grudges from the polite party... that would be the worst of both worlds.)

Perhaps if you're totally honest, your answer to the question "Can I stay at your place over the weekend" would be more like, "I would love this and will give you a yes to this for now but reserve the right to reconsider later on if more important things come around; should you arrive for your stay, which I will certainly initially enjoy quite a bit, then please note that the length of any extension of the stay is directly proportional to your funnyness, cleanliness and non-obtrusiveness, and I reserve the right to directly cancel any prior agreement should you steal any of my books."

Perhaps it would be easier if we come up with some unified standard for all this, host it online providing different sets of answers, and then just hand out cards containing the respective URL whenever needed.

Dog of Justice said...

Directness about this sort of thing acts as a lossy filter -- Chinese who are tolerant of it tend to be more interesting companions (in my view, anyway) in other ways, but there certainly isn't a perfect correspondence. Also, my guess is that some tolerate it but consider it a mark of social naivete.

Anonymous said...

your posts have been pretty boring recently. i may stop reading it. you need to spice it up more. we don't really care about emotional stuff. we need casual fun pictures of yourself and others.

Niniane said...

The blog is more boring because I am now more boring.

If you want casual fun pictures, go to

John K. Lin said...

I enjoyed this post a lot - both for your thoughts and the manner in which it was written - i.e. what conclusions would you draw from this?

Is life always to be lived so efficiently? I don't believe you believe that... The point is that different cultures have different norms, usually not good or bad, just different.

I quite liked the German's comment on how he though American behavior was quite polite. Germans are known to be direct - and the Japanese, quite the opposite!

"The blog is more boring because I am now more boring." - I found your comment to be too funny...

yan+starla said...

I think it's worst when these invitation to dinner or whatever is with family, because the guilt trip they give you when you don't accept is way worse than what friends give you, and it will come back to bite you the next time you accept or decline.

Anonymous said...

Hmm now I'm beginning to understand why you don't really want to date a Chinese guy. Less to do with "self hating" and more to do with "culture is fucking annoying"

Are you dating anyone now? Italian perhaps?

Niniane said...

> Less to do with "self hating" and more to do with "culture is fucking annoying"

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

hmm I don't like that Dawn Yang character. She wears blue contacts. I HATE HATE HATE when dark eyed people try to lighten their eyes with contacts. It never looks remotely real and makes them look stoned or something.

Anonymous said...

As an Indian, I can say that you have spoken for almost all Indians too.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if you are perhaps missing information that is being exchanged on another channel. It could be subtle and it may require growing up immersed in the culture (so yeah, I'm saying you may be Americanized, but not in the menstrual blood sort of way).

I come from a culture of similar long-drawn exchanges, but I think one can tell what is going on from the beginning. There are ways of making/refusing offers that are more formulaic than others, for example, so I think the actual wording is a cue. Other cues involve non-verbal signals and postures.

I wonder if other Chinese people who have not lived abroad for long periods of time (boy, do I get rusty even after a couple of years without a visit home!) have the same trouble as you do, or if they are receiving information through other channels.

dave mcclure said...

as a (half-)Italian-American geek married to a Japanese musician, i have to say this is the most brilliant summary of every single argument my wife & i have ever had... we are hardly EVER speaking the same language, even though it "sounds" like English. sigh ;)

(thanks, brilliant piece)

ArC said...

I kinda like the Chinese traditions, even if I don't know them very well myself. =)

Case in point: my grandmother used to tell her kids that she didn't want presents for her birthday. Of course, this was a total lie and one would regret it if one took her at her word, said my mom, but if it'd been me -- and granted, my mom and dad raised me, not my grandmother -- I woulda just believed her. At least the first and second times, I guess.

Joan said...

Heya! That really is random! I wonder why they would forward you mu blog!

Actually, Howard gave my your blog URL sometime back and I did enjoy it a lot. Then I read about you again in of the Google blogs and decided to come back more often. :)

CSSO said...

If I'm ever at your place and you offer me dinner, I will accept the first time! That's fair warning. And if I'm hungry, I'll ask you to feed me, and if you don't want to do that, you should say no.

I have no patience for this kind of crap...

Very entertaining post!

Anonymous said...

Hello, Russian is here too. Well if like another anonymous said being direct is not actually Italian way (at least in the South) I can tell for sure it's a Russian way, especially on the West. Going to the East (closer to China ;) people are getting less straight and too polite to me.
(hint) if it will be confirmed that it depends on geographical location Google can do map of straight of rhetorically flowery people to what to expect in what country :)
I’m a straight person and if I want you to stay for a dinner I will say so. If I don’t then I’m not going to break my oven to make it look like it’s an accident. Sometimes I feel I’m too straight even for Americans and trying to use softer words “I would like”, instead of “I want” etc. My accent makes it less visible and more forgivable. But going to “I reallyreally would like to stay but blah blah blah is too much. However I enjoy watching these kinds of games. Chinese and Japanese are masters in this kind of things and it is very interesting part of culture.
I find this subject very interesting. Brilliant post. Straight and honest.

Anonymous said...

> Less to do with "self hating" and more to do with "culture is fucking annoying"

"culture is fucking annoying" can lead to "self hating"

doubleoh2 said...

While not Italian, I 'd beg to defer, apparently Italians aren't at all as direct as you 'd believe.

Apparently an important concept in Venetian manners is to wait till the 7th time to say yes and even so... well you can never be too sure.

An excerpt form the book Venetian Masters you 'll enjoy reading

Sir Almo said...

wow looooooooooooool i soooo did not see the menstral blood thing coming