Local norms for listening vs. telling

Fieldwork transcripts are divvied up among team members

Over a few days spent reviewing interview transcripts from the US and China, I was struck by the observations around storytelling vs. listening vs. followup questions in Returning to America from a life in China (abstract only)

[I]n the States, I often had trouble responding to personal stories. But soon I realized that it didn’t make much difference what I said. Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen. If I told somebody in a small town that I had lived overseas for fifteen years, the initial response was invariably the same: “Were you in the military?” After that, people had few questions. Leslie and I learned that the most effective way to kill our end of a conversation was to say that we were writers who had lived in China for more than a decade.

At the times, the lack of curiosity depressed me. I remembered all those questions in China, where even uneducated people wanted to hear something about the outside world, and I wondered why Americans weren’t the same. But it was also true that many Chinese had impressed me as virtually uninterested in themselves or their communities. That was one of the main contrasts with Americans, who constantly created stories about themselves and the places where they lived. In a small town, people asked very little of an outsider – really, all you had to do was listen.


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