Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"I Have To"

I've noticed something recently, and I'm not quite sure I can pinpoint the reasons behind it - so I'm hoping for some enlightenment.

When teaching presentation and meetings skills, I often do a practice session on giving opinion - different ways to ask for and give opinions and their more subtle meanings and strengths - for example, "From my side" is a way to acknowledge that your view may not be true from another perspective, whereas "I'm inclined to think" intones less commitment to your opinion. "As far as I'm concerned" is a bit stronger, and "I've come to the conclusion that" implies that you've thought about the issue for awhile. Things like that.

Then we practice giving our opinions on various business- or industry-related topics - and some that are not so business-y, though I never get closer to politics than "What are your thoughts on the rise of China?". I throw a few fun ones in there ("What's your take on betel nut beauties?"), too.

Here are some betel nut beauties for you. Got your attention now? Good.

And here is a sampling of the most common type of reply I used to get, until I specified what I meant by "opinion":

"How do you feel about wage stagnation?"
"We have to accept it."

"What's your take on learning English?"
"I have to do it for my job."

"How do you feel about mandatory unpaid leave?"
"We have to deal with that in the global economic downturn."

"What are your feelings on your current career?"
"It's OK...I must do it."

"How do you feel about the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to China?"
"We need to accept it."

"What's your take on the Eurozone problems?"
"They have to fix that."

"How do you feel about your next product launch?"
"We need to work overtime to finish that."

"What are your reactions to current levels of R&D funding?"
"I must handle that."

And so on.

See what I'm getting at here? These aren't opinions. When I start to notice this in a class, stop the activity and point out that "I have to do it" isn't an opinion - I don't like it or it's a good idea or that would be profitable or the company should do that or this is/isn't satisfactory/interesting/important/vital - those are opinions.

Yes, I made sure that everyone understands each question and potential problem word before we begin.

The upside is that once I point out that "I have to do it" is not an opinion, they generally do get the point and start giving real thoughts, but it surprises (and, frankly, worries) me that I so often have to give that push. In a Western business or class setting, it wouldn't be necessary. Ask about teaching methods, wage stagnation, foreign language, infrastructure,'ll get all sorts of opinions and thoughts.

Another upside is that not every question gets this answer - ask about infrastructure, anything cultural (food, betel nut, convenience stores, Asian vs. American flight attendants, parenting) and you're more likely to get a real opinion.

So I've been wondering:

Is this a basic cultural difference?
Is it common in Taiwan, if you figure you can't change something, to accept it rather than give an opinion on it, or even cultivate an opinion on it?
Is it (heaven forfend) an idea that their opinion isn't important?
Is it because their opinion is negative and they don't want to sound, well, too negative?
Is it because they simply don't have an opinion, so rather than admit that, they'll seize on a fact?
Is it that they're shy for whatever reason to give opinions so freely (I don't think I inspire fear or shyness, but hey...)
Is this a Taipei or northern Taiwan thing? I have to point out that if one asks someone from southern Taiwan their opinion, they'll bloody well give it to you and give it to you good (if you ask a taxi driver (s)he may start flailing his arms and forget he's driving while racing down the road as he tells you exactly what (s)he thinks). I only really notice it in Taipei.

As the commenter below pointed out - is it that many Taiwanese people are "afraid" or "shy" when it comes to giving out their opinions to strangers or foreigners?

Food for thought anyway.

I have to go to bed now. ;)


Fikki Fukki said...

You must know, that Taiwanese feel uneasy to share their opinions with foreigners, they feel they may be misunderstood. In our families and among friends we can discuss many details. But we're also somewhat bitter since 2008, because our stupid president is kissing Hu's and selling out Taiwan to China. These things are very delicate matters, so better don't ask them openly, if you're not best friends with someone.

Jenna said...

Fair enough, but note that I specifically did not and do not ask those types of questions - the closest I get to politics is "the rise of China". I wouldn't dare ask about ECFA, President Ma, President Hu etc. etc. among any but my closest friends (and I already know what my closest Taiwanese friends think on those topics - they generally agree with you!)

I don't see why "what do you think of long working hours" or "what do you think of current environmental protection levels" or "how do you feel about R&D" or even "what do you think of violent video games / betel nut beauties / etc." would be so incendiary.

It's also important to note that the point is not that I want to hear their opinion (though I am interested in opinions generally) - it's to get them to practice structures for subtly communicating opinions, agreement and disagreement with implications for how strongly you feel something, how willing you are to be persuaded and how long you've considered it. You can't practice language like that without asking questions, and after awhile banal questions like "What do you think of ice cream?" or whatever grow rather dull: these are businesspeople and they need to learn these structures for use in meetings and presentations.

Also, note that I've seen a huge difference in how this plays out between northerners and southerners.

Jenna said...

I wanted to add that I specifically do not teach this lesson as though they're 14-year olds (ie "What do you think of ice cream?" or other childish phrases found in textbooks in Taiwan).

Doing the work that my students do, they *have* to give opinions at work, and the time will come when they have to do so in front of foreigners, so while I completely agree with you (and applaud you for giving your opinion! Yay!) that politics is off-limits, I cannot agree that it shouldn't be taught - giving your opinion precisely and tactfully disagreeing are business skills.

catherine_sr. said...

Do you think it might be something that is specific to a classroom/educational setting? I know in Taiwanese school culture, students aren't really encouraged to give their opinion, whereupon in American schools, the Socratic method is used (at least that is the ideal). From what Taiwanese friends and family have told me, this can have a huge emotional impact on you... basically, you are conditioned from a very early age to clam up and become passive as soon as you get in a classroom setting, no matter how congenial your classmates and teacher are, no matter how much you enjoy the subject matter and even if you are pretty mouthy, outgoing and opinionated otherwise.

I've wondered about this because I've certainly encountered lots of Taiwanese people (not just from the south) who aren't shy about giving their opinion on any number of topics even to a stranger. But every time I've gone to a talk or taken some sort of class, I'm usually the most talkative one there, even though I'm not very extroverted and don't even feel comfortable speaking Mandarin in a group setting. I find that very striking because back in the US, I was always "the quiet one" in class!

michelle said...

Interesting article. I have lived in Taiwan for 7 years and have regularly sat in on discussions with Taiwanese. Often this is question and answer format discussions with Taiwanese conducting the meetings. The number of foreigners present is relatively small (about 4 foreigners to 70 Taiwanese) so I don't think we were making them nervous. Besides, these people all knew each other quite well. In fact the new ones were more willing to comment. But it was so predictable, whenever there was an opinion question nobody raised their hand. Everyone knew in advance what the questions were so it is not like they were suddenly thrown a question. Anytime I could see there were going to be some opinion type questions I would prepare to answer those, in my horrible Mandarin, since I felt bad for the person conducting. I often wondered the same things you mentioned. Is it the education system? Everyone was very good at giving text book answers but not personal opinions. And when someone finally did answer these opinion questions, even if it was a completely normal answer, there were still nervous giggles from the audience.