Doesn't the title sound like a tongue twister? That's where the irony is. How can you make a response irresponsible? and what does it give? Any harm done? Does it matter? What does it mean when it happens? Why do ppl give such response? and why would ppl accept them? or do they?

    The play

    The whole thing started one morning when I was sitting in this noodle shop eating breakfast. A woman walked in and ordered a fried dish.

    Cashier girl: This dish needs wait.
    Woman: Oh, how long would that be?
    Cashier girl: They just started cooking them.

    The conversation ended there. Strange! well, at least to my ears, this is really really strange, and frustrating, and maddening, and is the root cause of everything that you don't like about this society, this country, this life. Really.

    The woman was certainly not satisfied with the response. However, she didn't pursue. Obviously she asked the question because she wanted to decide whether she wanted to wait for this dish (if wait time is acceptable to her) or switch do a different one. The cashier girl, however, was completly content with her response and felt nothing was wrong with the conversation. As a matter of fact, this so called chinese ambiguity is highly praised, sometimes, by ppl who genuinely feel that's the art of the Chinese language, the Chinese culture, the Chinese way. Well, you know what? That's totally BS.

    Because if you think of the root of a question, you don't ask a question like this for pleasure and to kill time. With the context of the scene, apparently the question was information seeking so that the woman can make a decisioin — wait for this, or not. We have all learned in 2nd grade (or experience with learning another language) what is the proper way to answer a question.

    Q: Does the train leave at 5?
    A: No, the train is running late. It will probably leave at 5:10.

    But the cashier girl's answer, on the other hand, convey zero information to help the decision making. Instead, she not only dodged the bullet, but throw the ball back to the woman and put her brain on a spin now:

    Woman: If it just started, how long does it usually take? Five minutes? Maybe I can wait. But what if it takes longer than that, I could instead get the other one, then I'll be home sooner so I can feed my cats. They must be hungry by now. But I wanted a taste of this dish, if only it won't take too long.....

    The pattern

    By the end of the day, she still doesn't know how long she will wait, and she could only make her move based on what I call blind assumption. Doesn't this phrase sound familiar? Yes, 拍脑袋做决定. So many times at work Chinese clients and colleagues complained about authority making decisions without having a good understanding of the problem, and the decisions then led to the misery that they were suffering from — failures of the project, poor quality of the product, and disrespect by management against their profession.

    But have they ever taken a step back and ask themselves, have they given the response like the cashier girl's? In a recent project, the company canceled a project after months of effort. I asked the Chinese colleague for a clue, and the answer was that marketing and sales actually voiced against this project at the very beginning, but the R&D in US didn't get the implied message. So the marketing and sales threw up their hands in the air, just like that girl — I warned you, so whatever you end up with is not my responsibility anymore. To make the explanation sound sophisticated, they added that "you know, it's the Chinese way. We can understand the message well, but they didn't get it." How wonderful. It's cultural, it's language, it's you, silly.

    This is exactly the same pattern, isn't it? So why didn't she give the straight answer? After all, she is the one who works there so she was in position to estimate an average wait time better than anyone random customer. And even more ironic was that she started the warning that "you need to wait for this dish", but then shunned the question. Why? One word, responsibility.

    1. The warning was not raised to help the customer. Instead, it was habitually said to offload responsibility — I have warned you, therefore any negative result was not my problem anymore. How witty but totally disgusting!?
    2. The answer. Needless to say, she made a superficial response without even addressing the face value of the question. Service? what service? They always say putting yourself in customer's shoes. That's what service is about. A service orientated spirit will make her actively anticipate customer's underline anxiety ← She was apparently on a hurry. Why so? How long would she be willing to wait? Could I recommend something else to help her situation? → you see, this will lead to many follow up questions, if she was there to serve the customer, not just being a human cash register.

    To me, the bare minimum she could have said was I don't know. Chef would know that. and if taking one step further, she could ask the chef on behalf. Well, she didn't do any of these because this requires a few more rounds of interaction, an information seeking on behalf the customer, and taking a responsibility of the message said:

    Cashier girl: They just started cooking. It usually takes 5-6 minutes. You can also try our xyz which also tastes good and is ready now.

    The courage

    Yes, making straight answer takes guts. You say what you mean, and you mean what you say. You stand behind your statement with a sense of responsibility that you take pride and not afraid of being proven wrong. More than this, you make those statement because you are actively engaging the customer to understand their needs, did homework so you have a fair confidence in your recommendation, and make those recommendation in order to make their life better through your service.

    It is easy to play the word game that gets you off the hook. But please, stop dressing it up with the Chinese culture, the Chinese language, the Chinese characteristic. There is nothing to be proud of in this sense, because that type of response is not only irresponsible, but a complete waste of life — at the end of that conversation, the woman knew nothing new, and girl knew nothing new either. Next customer who wanted to know the wait time for this dish, same ignorance, or same safe answer. The conversation might as well never happened from both parties' point of view.

    And the cashier girl felt great, until she walked out her restaurant and met with all the other irresponsible responses threw at her by others, unconsciously as she did, and helped nothing with her decision makings in life.

    Well, if only one can live without making decisions. But, isn't everyday filled with nothing but million decisions to make? That's life. So next time, remind yourself, give straight answer, even it is a "I don't know". I don't believe the beauty of the Chinese language lies in its low efficiency, and there is a difference between I didn't get the message vs. you didn't tell me.

    Implication? You know there is another name for it — up for interpretation. It's fun, until it blows up.

    Q: Help! I need help! I'm shot...

    911: I'm on my way! Will be there 5 minutes. Calm down, keep pressure on the wound, take deep breath....

    Yes, make straight answer, clear instruction, think, I mean really think, for your customer. Your service isn't there because there is a position called XYZ. It's there to help ppl, so next time, put a bit of yourself into it. Responsibility doesn't kill you. It makes you brave, proud, and respectful.

    — by Feng Xia


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