Culture: Direct vs Subtle

I’ve talked about this one before, and will probably do so again because it is endlessly fascinating to me. ONe of the big differences between the west (especially the U.S.) and the east is the difference in attitudes tangled around in the web of tact vs being direct, being straight-forward vs ‘beating around the bush,’ being a shame based and thus face saving culture vs a ‘we do not shame people’ culture, etc. To westerners it really does often look like just dishonesty when they can’t get what they feel is a direct (that is, helpful) answer from easterners, and to eastern people, it looks like unspeakable rudeness when we basically refuse to take no for an answer.

It’s not actually that we refused to take no for an answer, it’s more that we didn’t understand that there was a ‘no,’ because to us, no means no, I don’t know means I don’t know.

Things that do not mean ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ to us: That will be difficult, it’s on aisle 4, yes, okay, maybe later, later, and not answering the question at all. Often these responses or similar ones are accompanied by facial expressions or gestures or body language that does enhance the meaning of ‘no,’or ‘I can’t help with that,’ or ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ But those facial expressions and gestures are generally missed by Westerners, because we’re not that subtle and we don’t really do hints. Our version of hints looks like being hit in the face with a boxing glove to easterners. Their version of hints doesn’t look like much of anything to us, because it slides right by us.

A few nights ago we had some dinner guests, and after dinner we played some silly parlour games, guessing games, the kind of games where there’s a trick, just one or two people know the trick and they have to figure it out. Our guests included one American lady around my age, she’s lived her a long time, and three young Asian males in their 20s, one Korean and 2 Filipinos.

One thing I noticed is that this crowd caught on to the ‘tells’ much more quickly than the groups of Americans we’ve played with typically do. That may not be a fair comparison since one of them is a third culture kid grown up, and having lived in and out of at least 3 different divergent cultures in his life, he’s always going to be more observant than is typical. And both the other two are really smart cookies who work with westerners so they have an edge, too, but still. WE ran through about half a dozen of these kinds of games in just a couple hours, and often when we play with a group of Americans there’s only time for one or two and we’re giving giving incredibly broad hints by the end so nobody feels left out. But maybe their unique situations had more to do with that.

However, there was one game where it turned out one of the Filipinos already knew it. IT’s the Johnny Oops game- it’s easier to show than explain, so here’s a youtube video:
Just start at around 30 seconds and watch about 10 or 15 seconds for the gist of it. Exactly how you do the fingers and the ‘Johnny Oops’ is irrelevant. It’s the arm crossing at the end that is the thing you have to notice.
At least, that’s the case in the American version.

In the Filipino version, you ever so slightly and quite naturally sort of brush the side of your nose with one finger at the end. It’s so subtle that my husband and I, even knowing exactly how the game works, were only about 75% sure that was the tell. The Filipino friend thought the arm-crossing was ridiculously obvious and overblown and nobody could fail to catch it.

He and I both share a love for and fascination with the little cultural differences that come up, so for us, this little revelation was as much fun as the games themselves.

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