Do Asians not answer questions in public?

5 min Coffee with Uncle Reggie Stories URS: Do Asians not answer questions in public?
曾叔叔讲故事:亚洲人不爱在大庭广众之下回答问题吗? (Dixia 翻译)
Translation By: Dixia

Coffee Reggiegram: do you think Asians and non-Asians communicate in different ways?
Or is it just the environment?

East is east and west is west?
I love to teach, and I have been teaching for 50 years, in more than 150 cities and towns of the world, to kids aged 5 years to 70 year adults, and I find that though there are Asian differences from westerners, there are really a lot of common features to people in different cultures and even at different ages.


No matter where you are and at what age, questions provide the excitement of finding out answers, and the joy of stimulating your brains. Hence I love to ask questions so I can hear all kinds of interesting answers.

Asian kids are different?
People always warn me that Asian kids never respond to questions. However I’ve taught in many schools in China and Thailand, probably 10,000 student-hours worth of teaching, and I’ve never found that the kids do not respond to questions. The key is just how to ask.


Threatening environment?
I have indeed found that Asians in general do not like to respond when the question is asked to a general audience, when they are going to be the only person to answer out of a mass of people. If they are the only person to answer, it sounds presumptuous; in Asian culture there is a concept of “don’t pop up, or you can be put down”. Plus it is threatening, since the answer could be “wrong”, depending on the tough teacher, and you could be laughed at, so therefore in that sense it is true that they will not answer such a public question that a Western audience might more likely answer, being a more individualistic culture, and more “thick skinned?” And I think Western teachers are usually more tolerant of a variety of answers even if they’re not that precise….


The question is how it’s asked?
It’s actually very easy to overcome this hesitation. Asians actually like to answer questions, because it shows that they have “done their homework” (Asians finish their homework), or prove they have “good brains” (they may really like to show off their brains). It’s all in how I ask the question.


So what I do when I give a talk is simply go around the room in some very fair way, so all the kids get a “chance”; and standing right next to the student. I just ask, “Jack, what is….…?” And sure enough, most likely because of Asian-trained respect for the teacher, Jack very quickly answers the question, often to the admiration of his classmates.

所以我是这样做的,讲课的时候我就在课堂里走来走去,使得每个同学都有相同的机会被提问到。当我选定被提问者,我就会站在他身边,然后点名问:“小明,你来回答。” 果不其然,因为亚洲文化尊重师长,他可以马上回答我的问题,引来同学们羡慕的眼光。


It doesn’t hurt if I actually add a small reward, for any answer, which in my book is always “right,” sort of. That reward could be really small, like a “sticker” which I stick to Jack’s lapel, or a photograph of my family or Cincinnati; or literally any little gift; it’s truly just the thought that counts!


It’s contagious!
And once the first person answers the question, especially with an added little gift, the classroom just explodes into a flurry of answers. Then sometimes, even without pointing out any particular person, when I begin to ask my next question, many hands shoot up, in a respectful way at first, and then they are practically fighting to answer the question! So much so that the next door teacher might come by to see why we’re having such a commotion!


Adults are children?
Some people say, “this could happen with children, but maybe not adults.” But actually that’s definitely not true either. I have taught many classes to adults, young and old, and these are mostly serious doctors and research scientists. And it’s really essentially the same response. Asian adults are just grown up versions of this story, and they do like answering questions, as long as it’s safe, for the same reasons as the kids. And a small gift goes a long way also, to my surprise. Smile. Basically we are all kids, I am sure (remember I’m a pediatrician).


Small groups?
However I really like it especially when the groups I’m teaching are smaller. I particularly like it when it’s so small that I can literally name each person. In that case, as I name each person to either answer a question, or to ask me a question, then pretty soon everything becomes quite lively. And again, I may get complaints from the next room about how rowdy we are. Next door complaints are an excellent affirmation.


Is this just a visitor effect?
Some people then say this might work in China or Thailand because I was the visiting teacher/professor, and somehow they respect visiting teachers (“foreign teachers are spicy hot, in Chinese Cantonese jargon.”) There might be some truth in that. However, I have tried the same approach in many Asian churches in America, where you might think that the audience/congregation could be particularly “conservative,” and be hesitant to answer a question. But it’s the same.


Even at church?
I bring the skills which I have learned internationally, and sometimes at church services, I even take the microphone and walk around during my message, asking questions directly of people sitting in the pews. At first they are a bit intimidated by this, especially when they have never experienced it, but when they realize I mean them no ill, they start joining in the fun. And it is quite amazing that a so-called “conservative” Asian church suddenly becomes as lively as any African-American church.


I’m also sure that because I’m going around asking questions, that people are really much more awake. It’s very difficult to be dozing off in church when you’re asked a question directly, especially if the questioner is standing right beside you.


Asians do respond to questions in public.


2000 years ago?
Remember the greatest Teacher taught through using lots of questions. And his audiences were Asian, not Western. If you’re not up on your geography, his audience was located east of Asia Minor, embodying a culture that was definitely more Asian than European.


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