The more I study the Chinese language, the more I realize how much I rely upon non-verbal communication. A mere twitch of the eye or body motion can mean all the difference in the message I am trying to receive in face-to-face interaction with the locals here. Pointing is probably the best tactic in most cases. For example, at the bubble tea shops (or yin3liao4dian4 飲料店) I usually just say “wo yao zhei.ge” (我要這個 “I want that one”) and point to the thing I want. Much easier than learning all of the different names for the myriad of drinks each shop offers. This usually works up until the point when they ask exactly how I want my drink made or if I want it in a bag or for here or to go or if I’m just a stupid foreigner and haha you can’t understand what I’m saying to you anyway.
Lately, anyway, I’ve also realized that my usually fool-proof nonverbal body motions don’t always work. Or they seem to mean something completely different than what I thought they meant. Take for instance Chinese number hand signals. I’ve been completely befuddled in various situations by what the seller is telling me is the price of the product and what the number hand signal it is he is giving me at the same time. When I count numbers on my fingers: “1” is one index finger pointed up; “2” is an index and a middle finger pointed up; “5” is a full hand up; “6” is a full hand plus an index finger on the other hand; and so on and so forth. This works fine in Taiwan up until you get to the number 6. People here hold up one hand with the pinky finger and thumb extended and the three middle fingers curved down, kind of like the Hawaiian “totally awesome dude” sign or a “love” sign or the American Sign Language signal for the letter “Y”.
And just to make it even more confusing, the next one can be taken for numbers 7 or 8.
Ka-Pow! The man at the buffet shop made this side at me last week when I tried to buy lunch. His speech was unintelligible (I have local student back-up on this one) and I didn’t understand his hand motion either. So I gave him $70NTD figuring this was average for the buffets in the area and made my way to the lunch table.
Ten is done by taking both index fingers and crossing them, resembling the Chinese character for the number 10: 十
I requested a piece of man-tou 饅頭 (steamed bread) yesterday and when I asked how much the women clearly told me “Shi2” (10) at the same time holding out this hand signal in front of me. Thrown off by this gesture (hey, maybe it meant 2?!) and a little embarrassed, I fumbled through my change purse, dumped some coins in my hand and let her pick. She was honest at least.
Continuing with this theme of communication, there was a related and interesting article about it in today’s New York Times. Apparently, Japan has the hots for Obama. Or at least his voice anyway. A CD compilation of his speeches has sold over 500,000 copies since last November and is mostly promoted as an English language learning tool.
“Mr. Obama sets his range of vocabulary wide enough to accommodate the highly educated and the less educated…and at the lower end, it sometimes comes within the range of non-native speakers’ comprehension.” …
“But there are probably a large number of buyers who do not really possess the basic English skills to understand his speech, said Yuzo Yamamoto, an editor at Asahi Press. Since the sales took off, he has received postcards from readers saying they had been touched by Mr. Obama’s speeches, but “those same people have said they were moved even though they didn’t understand English well,” he said. “Some even said the only phrase they caught was, ‘Yes, we can.’ They said they were in tears nonetheless.”
Mr. Yamamoto said there was a sincerity about Mr. Obama’s speaking style that listeners could perceive phonetically, combined with a delivery that was almost musical.
“That seems to result in sensation, the kind of which you get from listening to good music,” he said.
Other observers say that Japanese buyers probably feel as though they understand his speeches just from the nonverbal cues.“
Ok, so I concede this is not completely non-verbal communication we’re talking about. But clearly it’s the medium (Obama’s sexy voice) and not the message itself that carries the meaning and effects the receivers. I’d be interested to know, but would not be surprised, if the phenomenon is apparent anywhere else in the world–not just Japan.
Overall I think this is just another explanation for why the world seems to be so taken with the president and underscores his pervasive influence. And while I may not completely agree with Obama’s new status as a Nobel Laureate for Peace, I think this article does give a nod to Obama’s soft-power-savvy and knack for communicating with such diverse audiences. It will be truly interesting to see what this means for future US foreign policy; for once, our president has the ability to communicate and–more than that–has the ability to inspire others to want to communicate with us.
∴Now all I have to do is learn how to do sexy-talk like Obama and then maybe I can communicate what I want to eat for breakfast!