Is Free Speech Really Free?

In my last post, I discussed how many Asians are reluctant to openly express their opinion in a public space. After a super long hiatus (work’s been crazy busy!) I finally sit down with my good friend Charmaine Yam for one of our regular chats. 



Dipa: What’s the biggest difference between how people from the west and the east give their opinions?

Charmaine: I’ll talk about Chinese people since that’s my background. I think in the work setting, people are concerned about ‘face’ so they think before they speak. They usually think about the ramifications of saying something critical about another person in public. They’ll either give feedback in a logical way or give feedback in private. A sense of hierarchy is very much present in the east. 

In western culture, there is a big emphasis on free speech. Everything is more equal and there is less of this hierarchy. You’d still speak quite freely between boss and employee and grandparent and grandchild. It is encouraged in Australian society to be more outspoken as that’s considered more dominant and powerful. People don’t really think about ‘saving face’ in Australian culture. 

Dipa: What are some of the drawbacks of this ‘saving face’ business?

Charmaine: I guess it might make some interactions less transparent. Especially if you fear too much that you might offend someone in public because they’re higher up in the hierarchy. You never quite know if what someone is saying is what they think or if it’s the acceptable thing to do. It’s a big thing to speak up in eastern society.

If you do, you better be someone who matters or who makes sense – or you’ll lose face. Interactions may be less genuine cause there are boundaries regarding what is acceptable and what is not.

Dipa: What are some of the advantages of not always saying what you think?

Charmaine: I think if you’re someone who watches what they say and is smart about it – you are a more thoughtful person. If you’re an idiot who says what you think and feel – then just think about the potential conflict you can cause. You just come across as intolerant. It can be offensive, too. If other people are observing that – we make judgments about the person who is saying those thoughtless things, too. 

If you’re thoughtful about what you say – it’s more meaningful and you’re saying things with a purpose instead of just saying what you feel at the time. 

Dipa: What’s the solution – what would you describe as a happy medium?

Charmaine: You have to think about whether this is the right situation or the right audience to say it to. You should also as think about the consequences of what you’re saying. You should frame your criticism in a way that’s helpful. It’s not helpful to frame it in a negative way – because anyone can criticise about anything.

However, people shouldn’t be prevented or pressured to say something about something they feel strongly about. If you are comfortable about voicing your opinion, you just have to stand strongly by it.

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