Researchers’ Voice: Moderating with Contextual-Mindfulness in China

The FocusVision Researchers’ Voice blog series highlights first-person stories from researchers from around the globe. Each account offers unique perspectives on collecting insights across disparate environments.

Moderating with Contextual-Mindfulness in China

By Rachel Wang

The American says “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” In the Chinese-style of communication, verbal words carry only part of the message, sometimes superficially. It is the listeners’ responsibility to collect the message beyond words. The moderator is the agent of truth. To be an awesome moderator in China, it is critical to be contextually-mindful of the process of truth discovery.

It takes the insider’s and outsider’s experience to build contextual-mindfulness toward one particular culture. As a native Chinese, I have been moderating in China since 2001. In the summer of 2015, I stepped into the land of America pursuing a Master of Social Entrepreneurship in a culturally-diversified environment (Hult International Business School, which hosts students from over 90 countries). Seeing the Chinese culture through the lens of multiple other cultures helped me understand my culture better. Enlightened by the dual views of insider and outsider, I am happy to share some tips on how to moderate with contextual-mindfulness in China.

Moderate with Words, Eyes, Heart and Gut Feeling

When you ask your respondents a question, sometimes you might receive a vague answer, an indirect answer or even no answer at all. To moderate with words, you must follow up with specific questions, remind them of the question or use projection to facilitate their articulation. To moderate in China, you need to use the eyes, heart and gut feeling to understand what is happening before choosing your moderation strategy. Observe eye expression, facial expression and body language (for example open vs. closed). Feel the vibe of a particular person and the group.

One time, a woman in my group looked tensed all of a sudden. After asking “are you ok,” it turned out she wanted to use the bathroom, but felt shy to do so in the midst of the interview. Getting back from the bathroom, she immediately bounced back to an active respondent. In another group of professionals, half of the group shut down not long after the interview started. I noticed they were avoiding the direction and eye contact with a specific participant. I turned my body to these participants who were shut down, smiling and nodding towards them, and established eye contact with them. It turns out their opinions were the opposite of that participant. After the group, one man shared in private that he thought the other guy was stupid, and he did not care to confront him in the group.

Build a Thorough Understanding of the Culture before the Interview

Culture contains many layers: the Chinese culture, the region’s culture, the culture of the generation, the culture of a specific community, etc. It takes time to build awareness of each cultural aspect. For example, read the history of the region, visit local museums, and follow the news, TV shows, music, novels, and movies that are popular with the people you are going to interview. It is also fun to get to know a new sub-culture. For example, to prepare a series of teen studies, I learned their “secret” internet language, which Chinese adults call “Mars Language.” It is creative and quite humorous!                                                   

Immerse Yourself in the Lives of Your Respondents

If the message is buried deep in the context, you will need to walk into people’s lives to discover it. Ethnography is a great methodology to serve this purpose. How a house is decorated, photo albums, wardrobe, art collections…these all speak to who a person is. You just need to switch to the right channel. The technology of the day keeps updating the toolkit of ethnography – like mobile ethnography – which adds excitement to this approach.

It is not just the methodology that matters, however, but also who you invite to research. Recruiting all parties related to your research presents a holistic view. In a national cohort study, for example, we visited an entire family, parents, grandparents and kids, to understand the family’s dynamics. In a child education study, the earliest design was to interview only moms because they were the key caregivers at home. However, after observing how a dad and mom interacted with kids at home (the dad happened to be there), we realized that dads had an impact too. We then switched the design to include both parents. As a matter of fact, encouraging dads to be more involved in their kids’ education turned out to be a powerful message for our client.

Being in the United States, I am always amused to be grouped into the Asian bracket because I know how different the Chinese are compared to Japanese, Korean and other Asian cultures. However, this isn’t much different from how Chinese refer non-Chinese in China; they use “European-American” when referring people from the western hemisphere. The more you understand the context of a culture, the more meaning you will see. Being a contextually-mindful moderator in China, in particular, empowers you to overcome the hurdles of indirect communication and really understand people.


About the Author:

Rachel Wang is a bilingual moderator and Chinese market strategist. She likes to write and speak about China and cross-culture communication. Read her full bio on LinkedIn or email.

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