Talking and Conversing Like An American

When I took my daughter to Taiwan when she was four years old, there was one aspect about our relationship that always surprised my relatives. It was the way I talked to my daughter and always asked her opinion on what we should do that day, what we should eat for the next meal, and in general just including her in the conversation.

Every one of my relatives was surprised, including the younger cousins, who were raising their own babies. The comments I heard included: “Children are never asked for their opinion, they just go wherever their parents tell them”, “My child doesn’t get to pick what they eat,” and other similar phrases.

Apparently this difference in conversation doesn’t only apply to children, but to adults as well, as referenced in a recent article in The New Yorker. Describing the difference between people talking in conversation in China and the U.S., the author points to an observation made by Peter Hessler:

He described the sensation of chatting with his new neighbors in Colorado and elsewhere. He was inundated by over-sharers. “People in China never talked like that. They didn’t like to be the center of attention, and they took little pleasure in narrative.”

This deference to not being the center of attention starts early, and the same New Yorker article references a study of four- and six-year-old Chinese and American children, which found American children to be twice as likely as Chinese children to talk about their own likes, dislikes and moods. I see that as a direct consequence of not including your child in the conversation, as my relatives in Taiwan generally did not. I guess even as an immigrant to the U.S., my relationship with my daughter is completely American, which makes sense, since I was raised in the U.S.

The New Yorker article wraps up the difference between Americans and Chinese succinctly with a quote from Richard Nisbett:

“Westerners are the protagonists of their autobiographical novels,” [Richard] Nisbett concluded. “Asians are merely cast members in movies touching on their existences.”

While I’m not sure I completely agree that Asians are merely cast members, I do see where the self is generally less important the whole, meaning the family, or even society. And as some commenters on 8Asians have pointed out, the entire one-child policy in China is creating many more children where the focus is on the self, so maybe even the Chinese will start talking like Americans too.

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About Tim

I'm a Chinese/Taiwanese-American, born in Taiwan, raised on Long Island, went to college in Philadelphia, tried Wall Street and then moved to the California Bay Area to work in high tech in 1990. I'm a recent dad and husband. Other adjectives that describe me include: son, brother, geek, DIYer, manager, teacher, tinkerer, amateur horologist, gay, and occasional couch potato. I write for about 5 different blogs including 8Asians. When not doing anything else, I like to challenge people's preconceived notions of who I should be.
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