The great ESL social engineering conspiracy theory.

I am going to put on a aluminum helmet for this one. It isn’t just a safety precaution, it’s a fashion statement. But I should elaborate that, just like everything else in this blog, the ultimate end of this is mostly just to shit on China. What can I say, it’s a day that ends in “y” and I have found something bad to say about China. Ho hum.

Ok, first a little bit of preamble. At every training school I worked at there was a degree of social engineering is going on. I would love to know what it is like to teach English in a truly conservative country, but all the former liberal arts majors that end up in ESL jobs (either at the teaching end or the creation end) are, about 90% of the time, more liberal than not. And so a little bit of the liberal agenda seeps into the classroom materials. If a race of aliens were granted access to just the material from various ESL courses worldwide, they would have a rather skewed view of the world we live in. Notably, they would think we lived in a world were the men are all kind of silly and foppish, and the women are all driven and successful and seemingly complete and interesting people. Having done this now for the better part of 5 years, at the various training schools I taught at I noticed that an inordinate number of women were in positions of power in all the reading and listening materials they gave out at these schools. Women were CEO’s lawyers, judges, presidents, members of parliament, business people, detectives, etc. Men were at best business people, but often bakers, clerks, construction workers or cops. The woman seemed to make reasonable, sound decisions. The men were the punch line of the jokes.

Now I want to reiterate a point: I truly give not the first fuck about this. I just wanted to illustrate that it is something that I have noticed, and I at least think it exists. Nor do I think it is a malicious conspiracy. Its rather a serendipitous conspiracy – completely independent of each other various creators of ESL materials all decided that they were going to shake things up a little and put their little feminist twist on things. No one would notice, they thought to themselves, as it is just me doing it. And one of the reasons I suspect that this is the case is because at the end of the day this brand of social engineering is in no way effective, and everyone knows it. No one actually changed their ideology because the president was a woman in their English class. These things are heard, and then ignored. Unless of course you are wearing a very fine aluminum hat, just like I am. Then you can see the shadow master’s secret plans.

So, to reiterate my point, this brand of social engineering is a thing that happens. But what I find particularly humorous is the particularly bizarre Chinese brand of social engineering I have been working with at my school.

There are a series of topics for some of my classes that give you a bit of pause when you see them listed on your schedule: responding to compliments, making small talk, changing the topic. What the actual hell, you think when you encounter this material for the first time. Do people really need to be taught such things? Well, you start teaching the classes and you realizes that the people in these classes need to. You ask them how they would respond to a compliment and they simply say Thank you. As you provoke them to say a little more, you get the usual insubordination of blank stares. Nope, apparently there isn’t any way of thanking people for a compliment short of saying thank you. But is this some kind of personal quirk of the students here are struggling with, or is this something that would be different in all languages? I put it to the test by deciding to meet up with a Greek friend of mine and seeing if I could properly intuit how to different ways of responding to compliments without his instructing me. Lo, I managed to pull off this communicative feat while only making myself look like a fool a few times. But I managed to do such complex tasks as responding to a compliment modestly.

That particular lesson also tries to teach the students the fact that compliments have different social functions such as starting a conversation or getting something you want from someone. But no matter how many time I go over this with the student they seem to struggle to get the hint, and come time for the final task they are still completely unable to do this, and insist on the starting conversations from the ever odious “whats your name”, “where are you from” combination.

Another point that they seem to consonantly miss form this lesson is that compliments are often used to keep conservation going. And just like with the previous point, come the end of the lesson the students for some reason absolutely refuse to do this, so not only do they simply ask each other where they are from, but they stop just after doing that.

In modern China, social engineering is just the tweaking of human being to be able to have basic fucking conversations. Horrific, isn’t it?

The extent to which the students plain and simple don’t fucking get it can be seen in the making small talk class. Again, small talk is something you didn’t think people needed to be taught to do. But that’s where you are wrong. Teaching this class will show you to what extent the student here have no conception of what it means to be social. Often, when asked to pick a good topic from a list containing both good and bad, they often fall to ‘music you hate’. Maybe you’ll forgive them that one, but when you play two recordings to them, the first of two people having a proper small-talky conversation and the second of a person ignoring someone else’s barrage of small talk questions, they often seem to pick the wrong one as an example of ‘good small talk’ (the true brilliance is in asking why they picked this mistaken answer. Often you will be told something along the lines of “it is an efficient conversation” Well, in a respect they are not wrong).

Just as with the responding to compliments class, the students are never truly able to pull off this feat.

You’re probably thinking, well so what? Who actually cares that you have to teach classes to socially engineer people to be basic human beings. Well, clearly I care. I understand that this is a part of education, but I kind of assumed that this would be a part of education that I assumed I wouldn’t have to deal with. I would be ok with it if I had ever in my life agreed to children. Teaching children involves taking tiny primates and turning them into tiny humans. That’s not what I signed up for by coming to teach adults. I wanted to teach fully functional human beings, who could already do basic things. Also this I think goes into my complete frustration both with this job and this country. The delights in teaching english are the people you deal with, but here I feel like a good 90% of the time I am dealing with people with severe cases of arrested development.

Not fun.

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