The Writing on the Wall: China's Implicit Communication

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by Brian Glucroft

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Pizza Delivery Numbers?

I've singled out the photo above, taken from the Xiapu, Fujian post, because it's received more questions from readers than any other.  Everyone wants to know the purpose of the numbers on the wall.  This is actually a really interesting question to answer because it allows me to briefly touch on two very Chinese themes.

To start off with, they are all phone numbers.  If you know Chinese you'll see the word 办证 (ban zheng) written on the wall and understand that the numbers are for people offering services to get certificates.

Here is where the first theme comes in.  There is much in Chinese culture that is communicated "implicitly".  You may now be wondering "but what type of certificates are being sold?"  In the above picture, one implicit clue is that it's not being posted in a professional manner by Chinese standards.  The other implicit clue is that the type of certificate is not mentioned.  Is this a case of poor communication?  No.  Together with the the manner of its posting, it sends a pretty clear message that the certificates are the second theme, "fakes."

Fake products are common in a wide range of products in China.  One of the more commonly sold fake certificates are graduation certificates.  Since police are less concerned about tracking down fake graduation certificate sellers in comparison to some other certificates, such as passports, it is possible for fake graduation certificate sellers to display their numbers prominently.  However, the police aren't so laid back that the sellers can explicitly write "fake certificates" on the well.  Hence the implicit understanding of what no description means on a prominently displayed number for certificates.  Combined with the unprofessional presentation, something you wouldn't expect for genuine certificates, it sends a clear message these numbers are most likely for fake graduation certificates (and/or possibly other certificates of equal "non-concern" to police).

Finally, I am happy to pass on a related link.  It was sent to me by a Chinese friend who was also helpful in making sure I didn't miss any of the key cues in the above picture.  The link is in Chinese, but what's important is that it shows the result of what happens when fake certificate sellers hire children to write phone numbers anywhere they can find a clear space.  It's a beautiful example of how giving instructions is not always the easiest thing to do -- especially when the other person isn't able to figure out the implicit parts of your message.  See it here.   

Based in Shanghai for over 4 years, Brian Glucroft has worked as a researcher in the user experience field for online services, electronic devices, and software companies, including Microsoft China, and has a new blog at Isidor's Fugue.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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