Why China Prefers SMS

As I was reading an article on holiday texts, it reminded me of the conversation I had with a friend of mine. He said in the US, handwritten notes, cards and small gifts are still the best way to show care and get closer with friends and families. A text seems a bit rude and offensive.

As American, he is overwhelmed by how much time Chinese people spend on texting everyday. “Chinese people are texting at office, on the metro, at the restaurant and even on the road when crossing the road. Why can’t you just make a phone call and get things done?”

It’s not only the Chinese. Generally speaking, cell phone users worldwide tend to send a text in order not to disturb others. Placing a phone call is a disturbance, even if it is for a big deal or a big date. It’s harder to put off a response. However, texting is a soft response medium. You can choose when you will read it and how you will respond.

But in China, there are cultural and political reasons to explain why we enjoy texting.

Culturally, we are taught that what we hear about may be false but what we see is true. That’s probably why voice mail is almost impossible to be widely accepted in China. We don’t feel comfortable talking with a machine with no response in the other end.

Moreover, Chinese are relatively introverted and reserved compared with Americans. Americans are direct and put a lot of value on hearing someone’s voice so they can gauge the mind of the person they are speaking with. Americans want instant gratification while Chinese prefer to wait, ponder, and let things develop at a slower pace, which is deeply influenced by the 5000-year-old culture.

There is also the phenomenon of saving face, or not making a fool of oneself by saying something embarrassing. If it is awkward to say something on the phone, a text can fix this problem. Before sending a text, one can think about what to say, edit it or even text someone else for advice.

Politically, unlike most western counties, we can’t audaciously talk about sex, social problems or make fun of political figures via mainstream media; however, SMS can make up for this gap. The private SMS gives us a feeling of democracy. I once got a multimedia message from a schoolmate. It is certain leader singing Happy New Year to me in a funny way. We can’t share it over the phone or on the Internet as the governments always block things they don’t want us to know. But in a country with more democracy, people don’t need to text to get this kind of information.

In the end, we can’t deny that texting is cheaper. Considering call charges and roaming fees, it makes sense that most people would choose to send texts for a New Year’s greeting. Texting first came to China at a time when we were all complaining about how expensive it was to make calls on our mobiles, so the mobile phone operators launched various plans including hundreds of free texts.

We found it more practical to get our message across with a text for 0.10 yuan ($0.02), compared with 0.60 yuan per minute for a call. Then the Spring Festival Gala started to call on audiences in the nation to send New Year texts. Later on, more and more TV programs and reality shows encouraged us to vote and engage with the shows via text messaging.

All of these reasons may explain China’s text obsession.

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