Resisting the Urge to Say 'Please'

Dreaming in Chinese (Walker & Company, 2010) by Deborah Fallows.

By Deborah Fallows

Excerpted from Dreaming in Chinese (Walker & Company, 2010) by Deborah Fallows.

My first language school in China was called Miracle Mandarin. Each morning, I would trace the same path to and from school. Just before ten o'clock in the morning, I crossed a dozen lanes of traffic under the busy overpass of Chengdu Road and continued up Nanjing Road past the buildings of the Shanghai TV station. Every day just after one o'clock, I retraced my steps home.

Day after day, then week after week, my route took me past the same group of young guys who were selling knock-off goods on the sidewalk. "Lady! Lady! You buy my bag! Come look my warehouse! I have Gucci! I have Prada!"

Each time, I dutifully slowed down, engaged for a moment, then declined the offers with a string of  "Bù yào. Bù yào. Bù yào." "Don't want. Don't want. Don't want."  After so many passages, I knew each hawker well enough to tell who had gotten a new haircut. They never seemed to recognize me. I was just another mark.

Finally one day I had enough. I snapped, and dug for my new vocabulary. "Zuótiān, bù yào! Jīntiān bù yào! Míngtiān bù yào!" I shouted back.  "Yesterday, don't want! Today, don't want! Tomorrow, don't want!"  

They stopped cold, stunned. Then one irrepressible soul quickly recovered, and with a plaintive look whispered earnestly, "Hòutiān?"—meaning, "Day after tomorrow?"

It's always great when what you study in the classroom works on the street. But I also felt pretty rude when I yelled out a blunt-seeming "Don't want!"  I know "bù yào" is what Chinese people themselves would say, but it still felt abrupt.

In fact, I often feel like I'm being abrupt and blunt, and even rude when I'm speaking Chinese. Bù yào (don't want), bù yòng (don't need), méi yǒu (don't have) bú shì (is not) bù kěyǐ (cannot)—all these are standard forms of declining offers or requests or saying no. But each time I use them, I fight the urge to pad them with a few niceties like thank you, excuse me, or I'm sorry.

Among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, or eyeing the table of a family, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor's plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then, another will announce "gěi wǒ yán!", literally, "Give me salt!" with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I'm always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a "Say please!" after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of please's (qǐng) and thank you's, (xièxie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please as in "please pass the salt" actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

One of my tutors, a young guy named Danny, who straddles the line between being a Chinese nationalist and being an edgy global youth, nodded his head enthusiastically when I asked him about this interpretation: "Good friends are so close, they are like part of you," Danny said, "Why would you say please or thank you to yourself? It doesn't make sense."


Copyright © 2010 by Deborah Fallows. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Comapny. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.