Book Reviews

Preparing for Chinese Culture

A Book Review

Davis, Linell. Doing Culture: Cross-Cultural Communication in Action. 2nd ed. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 1999. Vii + 345 pages. ISBN-13: 9787560017679; ISBN-10: 7560017673.

Linell Davis’s Doing Culture has been an indispensable resource as our family plans on moving to China next summer. Having already spent a year teaching in China, reading Doing Culture was full of “Aha!” moments in which Davis describes cultural dynamics I had experienced but not understood.

Davis’ insights come from both two decades of teaching in China and her professional training in sociology and cultural anthropology. Perhaps the most unique characteristic of Doing Culture is that the book is written for Western and Chinese audiences. Davis seeks to offer insights on how Americans and Chinese think, act, talk and relatean approach that enables the Western reader to be more others- and self-conscious.

Doing Culture covers four areas: (1) fundamental ways we can think about culture, (2) first encounters between Americans and Chinese, (3) non-verbal communication and (4) communication in the workplace. The rest of this review will highlight insights from Doing Culture that we have found most helpful as we prepare to move.

Davis opens her book comparing one’s culture to the “operating system” that runs on a computer. People, like computers, are fundamentally the same (i.e., the hardware). However, operating systems cause computers to function very differently! Americans and Chinese often interface like PCs and Macssometimes they are compatible and other times not. Being aware of differences can make all the difference.

Davis describes four stages of awareness through which we all progress in our understanding of these cultural differences. At first, cultural differences seem exotic. When I began preparing to teach in China, I remember imagining a school up in the mountains surrounded by clouds and having colleagues who taught wearing traditional Chinese dress! China and all its differences were thoroughly exotic to me.

In the next stage of cultural awareness, differences move from being exotic to frustrating. In my first month of life in China, Chinese attitudes toward schedules and planning were challenging to understand. Teaching schedules could be changed at (literally) a moment’s notice. I found myself continually thinking: “This would be unacceptable in the States!” However, in China, it was or “No problem!” In this stage, my awareness of differences was truly frustrating.

The third and fourth stages of cultural awareness take place at the thinking and feeling levels. Early on in China, a friend and I got chewed-out on a crowded bus for laughing very loudly throughout our private conversation. After the initial shock of the encounter, I began to understand how boisterous our behavior must have seemed to a crowd full of quiet Chinese. Then I began to empathize with the man’s anger and felt embarrassed at the way we had acted. As Davis explains, understanding the above stages of cultural awareness can limit the distance between us and Chinese culture as we pursue understanding and empathy.

Davis’ description of “first encounters” between Americans and Chinese peels back the layers of interpersonal communication to show the reader communication actually works. She talks about cultural “codes” we all use to designate the ways we use language that may not be immediately intelligible for those outside of our culture. For example, American businessmen use sports metaphors as codes: “Keep your eye on the ball”; “He dropped the ball”; “She’s on the ball”; “They threw me a curve ball” and “Playing hard ball.” Davis also discusses “behavioral codes” like gestures and different facial expressions (5354).

Most often, cultural contexts determine the codes we use to communicate. Some cultures are “low context” (like American culture) and other cultures are “high context” (like Chinese culture). With low context communication, most of the meaning is embedded in the actual message spoken. Someone can listen to the sports metaphors above, and if the listener knows the sporting reference, they can understand the code. In high context communication, however, the meaning relies more heavily on the setting, background, or circumstance surrounding the communication (much more difficult to figure out!). Davis repeatedly refers to Chinese politicians who give speeches that sound similar to the Western listener. However, in China’s “high context” communication, the context determines the meaning of the speech, not simply the message of the speech itself.

I heard a story recently about a Western couple in China who was speaking quite openly about some topics that are sensitive in China. Not too long afterward, local officials came to their apartment for a “routine” check of their passports, visas, etc. The officials were kind and departed without any specific words or rebuke. The couple concluded that nothing was wrong and their careless communication was not linked to the visit. The Chinese officials no doubt concluded that the couple “got the message” and would be more careful in further communications. For the Chinese in this situation, the context contained the message, not the communication itself.

Davis’ section on non-verbal communication picks up on the high/low theme when it describes low contact and high contact cultures. She says, “In high contact cultures, what people sense when they are close to a person or object is most important” (119). By contrast, low contact cultures maintain distance in interpersonal communication because their visual perception of the other person is most important. American culture is low contactpeople maintain their distance when talking, great value is given to personal space, there is relatively low tolerance for smells, people say “excuse me” when someone bumps another in a public setting and so on. China is a high contact culture in which visual contact is only one of the ways people perceive others. A lack of personal space, unfamiliar smells, inadvertent touching in crowded areas and so on are all in the realm of what is familiar for a Chinese person.

One of my dearest Chinese friends was what I called a “close talker.” When we spoke to each other, his face would get uncomfortably close to mine. I had the hardest time trying to figure out how best to maintain a comfortable distance when conversing with him. I decided that having conversations while walking was the most comfortable for me until he grabbed my hand, and we walked holding hands. Davis’ description of high/low contact cultures puts words to some of these most awkward cultural differences.

Doing Culture could be improved in several areas. As Davis admits in the Introduction, the book is written for the classroom and therefore feels more like a textbook with its shorter sections, case studies, exercises and chapter-ending discussion questions. It is also due for an updated edition (published in 1999, reprinted 2007), not on trade paper and copublished in the West for a wider distribution.

It should be noted that Davis does not write from a Christian perspective, and as an anthropologist her discussion of morality and God is relativistic. Nevertheless, her exposition of culture is extremely valuable and will be a reference of mine for years to come.

Share to Social Media


MDB, PhD, has lived in China with his family since 2013.View Full Bio