Since I moved to Hong Kong I felt something different in the people's attitude to talking; people were making me a lot of questions, and as westerner I could have interpreted this attitude as being particularly curious. Many westerners, indeed, simply read the local habits through their western eyes, which is something that obviously does not lead to any understanding (quite on the opposite, this lead to conduct separate lives, and meet only with other expats). But I suspected that there was a complete different ground for such attitude, and I have thought that only questioning the very grounds of my discourse I could probably overcome such limit. The limit could indeed become an opportunity.
I would say that generally in western societies speaking serves to establish a relation, which is not fixed in advance. At the beginning the relation is fair (in English and some other languages we even approach the other by “you”), both people are quite on the same level, and the conversation can improve and change the power of participants in the relation. But in Asian societies, and in Hong Kong as well, I have experienced that speaking is driven by the relation between people, as the relation is somehow pre-determined by a sort of hierarchy. Everyone has a precise weight and relevance in the relation, before we even begin talking, and the talk should somehow respect, maintain the hierarchy. But then, if the relation is already determined, there are things which can be said, and others which don’t. Then, the word has to adapt to the relation, and not the contrary.
Why Hong Kong people find so hard to start a telling?
In the west we use to talk for the pleasure of the conversation itself, because the boundaries are not so strict and defined. The same etymology of the word refers to the act of "living together, having dealings with others", "to live with, keep company with", meaning that goal of the conversation is not merely the content, but the very act of talking, telling, and doing it together. But this happens rarely in Hong Kong, where indeed is quite difficult to move from a “questions and answers” level to some sort of conversation. As to say, many times the speech does not evolve into anything more complex, where the participants may initiate a telling, a story; there is often dialogue, but not conversation. Why? What hinders this passage, why people find it so difficult to simply “talking”, instead of “talking of something”? Why this difficulty in beginning a telling? Why this resistance to the word?
The triumph of communication
The word in Hong Kong has a radically other relevance than in places like Europe or America. It is nothing more than a tool for communicating here, where communication has to be quick and efficient, and serves to exchange information, not for developing a critical thinking, or sharing emotions and feelings. The use of the word tend to be rather utilitarian, instrumental (the massive use of “sms” is a good example of how communication should be short and effective). A quality, a virtue of Hong Kong people is their being so practical in life, so concrete, and action oriented. And as Confucius has prescribed, in most of the cases actions do follow their words. Or even substitute them, because this is a culture of doing rather than talking; this is a place where people prefer action rather than thinking.
In the West, especially in the southern countries, we might spend lots of words and apparently conclude nothing. We can meet and talk for hours, without a precise purpose. But in Hong Kong people is primarily concerned of not wasting time. And talking with no specific purpose is considered a waste of time. Thus people will most likely say what they consider necessary, but no one single word more: "a few is already much". Talking, what for? This is the general attitude of the people in Hong Kong. And this is probably one of the reasons why talking has often the form of the request, as it suppose an answer, a solution, something that comes back as result.
It is a politic of time; we usually consider talking the best way for taking care of relations, for knowing us, and discovering something of us, because talking we can say something that we never imagined before; talking is a way for having access to the Other, to the unconscious. We might feel that just talking something will happen, that it might have produce some consequences (thus, talking is not a waste of time; the difference is that we trust the word, we feel that it might lead us somewhere). And we generally enjoy the process. But this is not the same in Hong Kong, where the word is just a surplus, something which is useful only if can have direct and measurable effects. The consequence is that much remains unsaid, and the silence can be extremely loud and meaningful. "What should we speak for? It's useless", or even “less talk, less wrong”: these are some slogans typical in Hong Kong. So the conversation not always starts. Obviously, if you don’t trust the word, if you don’t think that the word can show you the way, you will consider the journey (the talk, the speech) nothing more than a waste of time, nothing more than the time who stays in between you and your goal. And so people often neglect pleasures and pleasantries for efficiency, because the most important is to arrive, is to reach the goal, the destination.
|Boats made of words. Traveling cannot avoid the question of the word|
I might be wrong, but I have the impression that most of Hong Kong people know very little about other countries, and they generally travel very little, if compared to westerners. Is it a pure coincidence this parallel between talking and traveling? I believe not.
Speaking is a journey, and as for any good journey you make a plan, which later you can only forget. It is important to have a plan; it is important for starting, and eventually meet the Other, not for respecting the plan! Trying to force the way represents a politic of time, it’s the ideal of the time management. There are things which simply cannot undergo any time management, and in fact they regularly fail (how many people in Hong Kong too get married just because they feel it's time to, because they feel they are getting old? No, the time is not for all the same, we are wrong if we refer to the time of the clock). There are steps in life which only can come when the times are ready, meaning when (and if) our speech has lead us. It is not a matter of will, never. In the west the ideology is represented by the will, by the ideal of freedom: “I do what I want”. In Hong Kong it is represented by the code and the social norms, which often set the standards. But these are just two coins of the same medal. And in Hong Kong speaking become a waste of time, it’s “time consuming”, because everybody should know already (according to Confucianism) how a person should think and behave, in order to be a good person.