“We’re Not Fighting, We’re Just Talking!” My Struggle with Cultural Differences in How People Talk in China

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My husband (far left) with family members.

The other night, I could hear those amplified voices through the paper-thin walls in my in-laws home. One of those voices sounded a lot like my husband’s; the other surely was his father.

And inside, I shuddered. What were they arguing about? Was something wrong between them?

As the minutes turned into an entire hour, my worries only grew. Because of course, only something really bad could take that long to hash out. The thought of my husband getting into a deep argument with his father made me feel nauseous. I wanted crawl under my covers and pretend this wasn’t happening, except nothing could seem to quiet the unsettling noise from next door.

So imagine my surprise when my husband strolls in the door with a satisfied smile and not a trace of tension in his face. How could this be?

“Sweetie, were you arguing next door?” I mentally braced myself for confirmation of my worst suspicions.

“Oh no, I was just talking about finding our ancestors’ graves with my dad.” He was so nonchalant about it all. As if it was normal to discuss this topic in loud, booming voices.

I breathed out a huge sigh of relief. “Thank god, I was so worried! I could hear you through the walls — I thought you were fighting. And you were gone so long…”

“Don’t worry,” he said to me, his overreacting wife. (I swear that “Don’t worry” is probably one of the top ten common phrases John has to say to me in our relationship, because I’m always misinterpreting things for the worst.)

But it’s really easy to make mistakes like this when it comes to conversations between my husband and his family and friends in the countryside. That’s because when people talk to each other, even in friendly and congenial ways, it can sometimes sound like an argument to my American ears.

Growing up in the Cleveland, Ohio region, I learned pretty quickly that raising your voice was a sign of anger or disrespect. The times in my life when I heard yelling or loud voices in the house, it invariably meant an argument was in progress. Speaking loudly was just not a good thing.

But here in my husband’s rural Hangzhou village, people speak loudly all the time about normal, friendly things. I’ve watched my aunts and uncles stroll in with their booming voices, discussing how the weather was that day or what their ducks did in the yard. I’ve heard neighbors, in the most shrill voices I’ve ever heard, say nice things about my family’s home. I’ve observed family members discuss things they care deeply about – like finding an ancestor’s grave – with their vocal volume turned up.

You should see my mother-in-law when she answers the landline at the family home. She invariably speaks to the caller in a tone that you would probably classify as a “yell”, yet what she’s saying is totally friendly and normal. Have you eaten yet? Come over to visit us.

The funny thing is, I know all of this and yet I forget time and time again. It’s as if any loud voice has been permanently branded in my mind as angry and threatening. The fact that I don’t always understand everything that’s said here – as most people use the local dialect to communicate – only compounds the issue.

Will I ever get used to this? Maybe someday, years from now, after I’ve spend decades living in China. In the meantime, I’ll have to get used to being wrong about this, a lot.

Sometimes, it’s really good to be wrong about something. 😉

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38 thoughts on ““We’re Not Fighting, We’re Just Talking!” My Struggle with Cultural Differences in How People Talk in China

  • February 22, 2016 at 6:59 am
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    I feel the same way when Andy’s family is talking. Especially his mother and his aunts. I always figured it had something to do with the tonal nature of Cantonese, because it wasn’t that it was loud so much as it lacked inflection (to my American ears). So I’d hear this flurry of rapid-fire, very fierce-sounding, serious Cantonese, and about the time I’d think, “oh, no, someone is in trouble…”

    All three women would finish speaking and erupt into laughter.

    Reply
  • February 22, 2016 at 7:37 am
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    I think you’re onto something when you say that “any loud voice has been permanently branded in my mind as angry and threatening.” I do think you’ll get over it though.

    I’m trying to think, what are the signs and sounds in Chinese that signal angry or aggressive speech?

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    • March 9, 2016 at 2:25 pm
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      I think it’s not only because of Chinese’s tone of voice but also because of their language itself. I studied Catonese for 4 years and I realized that I need to push a huge amount of airflow out of the mouth when producing a lot of sounds. Especially, if you live in Beijing where people usually use “r” at the end of every single word and raise their voice at the end of every sentence no matter it is a question, an exclamatory sentence or else, you will think that they are barking at each other.

      Reply
  • February 22, 2016 at 9:20 am
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    That was always my impression when I first came to China. People in Kunming always seemed to have tons of arguments with each other.

    A few years later, I once started crying at the doctor’s office when the doctor started to speak to me in what sounded to me like a very angry voice. She was from Hunan province and it’s quite common to talk like that there. I was pregnant back then, so hubby thought something was wrong with the baby when he saw me coming out of the office crying. Luckily it was just me being intimidated by the doctor’s voice.

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    • February 25, 2016 at 11:08 am
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      Thanks for sharing Ruth! Oh, poor thing, crying in the doctor’s office…I probably would have done the same thing. I’m definitely sensitive to those sorts of things.

      Reply
  • February 22, 2016 at 11:05 am
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    I’m used to the angry tones now, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the volume. My neighbour’s mother was outside of our apartments talking on the phone and I’m still convinced she was calling Mars. I know loud voices are a cultural thing but sometimes (often) I wish people would think more about others.

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  • February 22, 2016 at 11:38 am
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    I feel the same when people communicate in Taiwanese. Their harsh tones and loud voices can be very misleading. For example, on CNY’s Eve, I heard my husband, his younger brother, and my MIL in what appeared to be a shouting match. We they stopped, my husband explained that they were talking about how they need to teach our baby Taiwanese.

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  • February 22, 2016 at 12:42 pm
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    But why do they yell like that? Nobody’s answered this question. Have they all a hearing deficiency? Or is it simply that 5000 years ago during a terrible thundering storm, the entire country tried to speak above the din and their children overheard. And the storm continued for weeks, and the children grew accustomed to the yelling and decided that was the way to speak to one another. And so it was passed down along with all those other traditions? Chinese can converse quietly. They can talk with each other in a calm, quiet, considered manner, without extraordinary gesticulation. Really! I’ve witnessed it, enjoyed it even. Sometimes had to say “please speak up, I can’t hear you, and I want t know if you’re saying about me.” Guess you’d have to mount a campaign, however, to raise consciousness on this, like the kill all the flies in China campaign. How else to get their attention? Don’t want to shout, do we.

    Reply
    • February 25, 2016 at 11:14 am
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      Thanks for the comment James. There have been times when I’ve wondered about the “why” behind behavior. And I’ve found that there isn’t always a good answer — that many times it’s just a matter of cultural differences. (And the reason I might be looking for a why is because I”m not accustomed to it and am looking for an explanation for why it’s different.)

      Reply
      • February 9, 2017 at 4:29 pm
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        I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we cannot simply make it clear that which behavior is right and which one is wrong. Every behavior has its reason behind. What we should do is to find a relatively explanation for the behavior so as to make people from different cultural background understand each other without too much misinterpretation.

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    • March 9, 2016 at 9:31 pm
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      Well, in my opinion, the Chinese habit of speaking loudly may have something to do with the great population. Chinese are famous for their population density. In China, people are surrounded by noisy traffic and also other people. If they want to be heard, they must try to talk louder, at least louder than those strangers talking right next to them. Just imagine you and someone standing in some crowded place. If you want to talk to each other, there are only 2 solutions: one is to lean closely in and whisper to their ears and the other is to raise your voice. Which one is more appropriate? I myself prefer the second option. To communicate effectively, the Chinese have to do that kind of loud talk everyday in their life, so it just becomes a habit.

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  • February 22, 2016 at 3:38 pm
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    IMHO it’s more the difference between village people and, well, more civilised ones. After many years in China, I just don’t make friends with loudy people, as I don’t make friends with loudy people in my own country. And guess what: there are still plenty of people in China, whose parents DID tell them that speaking too loudly is impolite.

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  • February 23, 2016 at 9:02 am
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    Ahh…. speaking loudy. Kind of something that is expected in China. On few occasions they would be happily speak loudy at the corridors of the hotel room late at night whilst other would simply want to put their head down. Not an appropiate place to do so.

    I sometime struggle to understand whether people are having general chit chats or were fighting over for something (until one of them punch another or smash a beer bottle). Probably a good to desh off.

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    • February 25, 2016 at 11:16 am
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      “I sometime struggle to understand whether people are having general chit chats or were fighting over for something (until one of them punch another or smash a beer bottle). ” Oh my!

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  • February 23, 2016 at 3:59 pm
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    Reminds me of when I began to watch Korean dramas the talking sounded very shrill and almost like yelling. Later on I got used to it. When I tried to introduce Korean dramas to my mom, her complaint was also of the characters yelling a lot, which I didn’t notice because I got used to hearing Korean dialogue a lot 😛

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  • February 23, 2016 at 8:56 pm
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    I used to think that about Cantonese, but by my second year in Hong Kong I thought it a gorgeous language.

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  • February 23, 2016 at 9:03 pm
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    I run into the same thing as well with my husband and his family even though they now live in the US. Several occasions I’ve asked him after a phone conversation with his mother what was wrong only to get “oh, nothing just talking about when we are driving up to visit.”

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    • March 9, 2016 at 3:20 pm
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      I also had the same situation with you. When my friend makes a phone call for her mother, she always uses the loud tone of voice to talk to her mother. At that time, I wondered whether they were having struggle with each other or not. After that, I asked my friend and she explained for me that it depends on the sounds of the place where a phone call appearing and depends on their habits. However, to me, it will be better if she knows how to adjust her tone of voice when she is in public.

      Reply
  • February 23, 2016 at 9:24 pm
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    I totally get it! My mom often thought me and my Chinese exboyfriend were arguing when we were talking on the phone together 😀 so funny!

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  • February 25, 2016 at 3:37 am
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    How often I wondered in the beginning why my wife was fighting non-stop with her parents only to find out they had some “normal” conversations later on. Especially in taxi rides it sometimes goes into near shouting between my mother-in-law and the driver that I am afraid that he will just kick us out ….and then my wife tells me they told about how bad the weather had been the entire year :p

    Reply
    • February 25, 2016 at 11:18 am
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      Yeah, sometimes it really is hard to tell that difference when you’re not used to it, huh? 😉

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  • February 26, 2016 at 1:03 am
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    Too me, it is not culture issue. It is social class issue. American underclass, ghetto black, redneck white can be quite loud. Upper class is quiet.

    Same thing in China.

    I used to be quite quiet until I was elected class president which demanded loud voice in front of whole class to make speech.

    Reply
    • February 26, 2016 at 1:47 am
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      Ghetto black? Redneck white?
      Do you realise that these aren’t actual demographics? You’re using lazy and derogatory terminology to describe people, human beings.

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  • February 26, 2016 at 1:07 am
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    Under classes do not give each other chance to speak. So people end up raising voice to compete. USA restaurant and bars have the same problem compounded with loud music.

    In Europe, the restaurant is much quiet. In up scale Chinese and American restaurants, people are much quiet.

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  • February 26, 2016 at 1:15 am
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    Also this class behavior is more likely result of living condition for the poor. Poor people tend to live in crowded situation (like a crowded bar?). So crowded personal space force people to compete for anything including attention or voice.

    With increased wealth, people have more personal space and less likely in crowded situation. No competition for attention or voice is needed.

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  • February 26, 2016 at 7:30 am
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    My mother speaks like this all the time… and it totally stresses me out, even though she raised me!

    When I lived with my parents in the US, my bedroom was over the study, where my parents would go each night to discuss the day/go over the family budget, and every night I swear I thought my parents were pissed at each other because of the tone of my mother’s voice. And this is with me knowing that she talks like that! So I totally identify with what you’re saying!

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    • March 9, 2016 at 8:29 pm
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      It is the same with my family. My father often speak out not only with me or my family’s member but also with his friends, neighbors and others. It likes his habit which can not change. I think that this is the way that he wants to be friendly with others because almost men in my hometown say like that and speaking out and openly is like communication style. However, I sometimes misunderstand him when he talks like that with my mother about the bills, my studying .. because it sounds like an argument.

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  • March 9, 2016 at 6:48 pm
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    It does not only happen in China. In my hometown, men often use loud voice for talking to their family members, friends, neighbors … It has been the habit and tradition from the past. We has a proverb to show this case that is “Ăn to nói lớn”. The older think that someone, specially men, speaks out and openly which means that they are straightforward, honest and healthy. However, most foreigners may misunderstand this case. For me, most of people in my hometown speak out which means they want to be friendly in some way.

    Reply

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