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Silence, or not silence?

han yu's picture

       According to Kim and Markus, there is a sheer distinction between East Asian and American styles of speech in which East Asian culture emphasizes the “other”, “relations” and “context”, while American culture pays more attention into the “individual”, “self” and “content”. Under these cultural influences, many East Asian students, especially Chinese students, while put into a typical American classroom, exhibit a salient characteristic of being introversive, compared to their American classmates. I want to note that I am using the word “introversive” instead of “silent” this time since recently I have started to question the definition of silence and have not gotten a satisfying answer yet. The main cause of my questioning comes from John Edgar Wideman’s essay, In Praise of Silence. And I will clarify it before ending this paper.

       Last week I had an impressive interview with professor Betty Litsinger, who is the director of multilingual writing in Bryn Mawr College and has taught ESL (English as a second language) for over 30 years. In the conversation, we talked a lot about the differences of the talking and writing styles between East Asian (especially Chinese) students and American students. Therefore, apart from the original model I concluded from Kim and Markus, I want to offer some more detailed insights under those differences.

       A main contrast between the two groups of students come from their way of thinking, the Inductive and Deductive reasoning, which was mentioned by Betty, and surprisingly I had also thought about this inductive-deductive difference before. The inductive reasoning, more commonly rooted in Chinese students’ state of mind, requires people to find enough evidence before coming to a conclusion, and the deductive reasoning, more common in American students, allows people to start from a conclusion and then search for evidence. Chinese students usually tend to have more information before making a judgement. They try to look at the whole situation, ponder and ponder, and avoid having a premature judgement over anything. This habit does not only influence their talking, but also writing. As Betty pointed out, in most papers written by Chinese students, the conclusion is not clear until the end. On the contrary, American students are encouraged to speak earlier that their opinions matter even not well researched yet, since people believe that they can always change their mind, as long as they cling to their opinions, promote it and look for evidence which may refute or support their conclusions. As Betty mentions, in American education, people considers writing and speaking as a tool for clarifying, and improving their thinking process, while for Asian students, speaking and writing is to prove what thoughts they have after they have clarified them.

       This more inductive way of reasoning may further account for the silence, or introversion of Chinese students. “Korean students are having a particularly hard time since they are too afraid to make mistakes”, said Betty. And I extended that by saying, “Chinese students are terrified by making mistakes, too”. Betty attributed this fear to the teaching style in Korea that teacher may hit the students if they make mistakes. Although this is not very common in China, I still think students are threatened by some other forms of punishments if they are wrong about something. Therefore, usually Asian students may be reluctant to speak until they realize that in American culture, making mistakes is deemed as a beneficial and necessary process for knowledge building.

       The introversion of Chinese students may also come from politeness which is deeply valued in their culture. They tend to hold their disagreement toward anything and anyone, no matter this disagreement is a harsh one or not. It is considered abrupt and uncourteous to criticize someone face to face if they are in an equal level of position, let alone if the person they are questioning is someone in higher position such as their teachers, or supervisors, or upper-class classmates. Betty also notices that in the writing of Chinese students, many words with indefinite meaning such as “may”, “would”, “should”, “could” appear throughout their papers and she always crosses-out those words to encourage students to make stronger arguments. The reason behind this is that Chinese students always feel it is more polite to acknowledge their readers that they know people may disagree with their opinions. However, for American students, they do not feel the need to invite their readers or to make them feel good about their paper. “If you have another perspective, argue it out with me!” said Betty, imitating a possible state of mind of American students.

       Therefore, replying to my original argument about the lack of critical thinking in Chinese students, there is a new point suggested by Betty that, it is not that Chinese students do not think critically, but the critiques happen in another time, at another place, in a different order, or sequence from American students. They consider it impolite to criticize someone face to face, so they may write about it somewhere else, or talk about it with close friends. They are reticent in class, since they are constantly listening, thinking and gathering information and evidence for making a final argument. They are just not accustomed to start from a conclusion, state it, and then reject or hold on to it. Also, culturally speaking, many American people feel very uncomfortable living with silence. They have a stronger need to fill the gaps, whether by music, by the sound from TV or by a simple greeting.

       As I mentioned at the beginning paragraph of this paper, I am using the word “introversive” instead of being “silent” when describing Chinese students. My doubt mainly comes from the more and more vague definition of “silence” since I started my investigation of silence in this class. At the beginning of this semester, I feel that I oversimplified silence by considering it a situation in which no one is saying anything, or no man-made sound such as music exist. However, after I read John Edgar Wideman’s essay, In Praise of Silence, I started to question the existence, or independence of the concept “silence”. “At a minimum, we can hear ourselves listening. […]So silence is a metaphor. […] Silence is a way of imagining such a moment outside time, imagining the possibility of pausing at ground zero and examining our lives before the buzz of the world overtakes us. […] Silence is a proof that the decision to listen or not is ours” (Wideman, p.549).

       As he says, silence is a metaphor. Silence is a metaphor? And throughout his essay, he thinks that silence is pause, waiting, imagining, dreaming, or resistance. He believes that it is us to decide whether to be listened by others or not, and at least we can hear ourselves thinking and listening. Then does silence really exist? If something cannot exist without other ongoing things, is it an independent existence? Or maybe it can only be held as a concept? As Chinese students are being orally reticent, there are actually a lot happening in their mind. They are hoping, hoping a proper timing; They are pausing, pausing for gathering evidence; As all people are not speaking, they may be imagining, dreaming, or resisting. Then can we really say that people are capable of being silent? 


Works Cited

Heejung S. Kim and Hazel Rose Markus, "Speech and Silence; an Analysis of the Cultural Practice of Talking," Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race, and Gender in United States Schools, Ed. MIchelle Fine and Lois Weis. Rev. New Paltz: State University of New York Press, 2005. 181-196

John Edgar Wideman. "In Praise of Silence." Callaloo 22, 3 (Summer 1999): 547-549. 


Anne Dalke's picture

Your first reflection on silence developed a contrast between the reduced possibility of becoming a dissident in Eastern culture, and the reluctance to appreciate other’s opinions once you had expressed yourself in the West. We agreed that you would raise some of your questions (about the implications of these differences) with someone else on campus whose job it is to help students negotiate cultural dissonance.

You report here on the outcome of that interview. What emerged from your discussion with Betty was, first, an analysis of two culturally different orientations, the (American) deductive method, vs. the (Chinese) inductive one. With the articulation of that difference arose a more profound awareness that Asian students actually do think critically, but that “the critiques happen in another time, at another place, in a different order, or sequence from American students.” These are not acts of silence, you claim; and you use Wideman’s essay to argue that we are never silent: “At a minimum, we can hear ourselves listening.” We are engaged, in other words, in acts of “introversion.”

And so: now what? How to put such differences into play in our classrooms? What other-or-larger range of pedagogical practices might be called for, based on this awareness? Are you interested in pursuing such questions further?