I was lucky to be able to join the opening ceremony of Macquarie University’s new library on 28 March. The event impressed me a lot. So many teachers, staff and students braved the rain and voluntarily joined the “human chain” and passed a book hand to hand from the old library building to the new one. Then the vice-chancellor, Professor Steven Schwartz, who wore a stylish polo-neck sweater and jeans, gave a speech. His speech began with an anecdote about his personal work experience in a library many years ago and then introduced the advanced new library system. The speech was light-hearted with spontaneous laughter from the audience and warmly applauded at the end. What a wonderful speech!
In my mind’s eye I saw a similar scene unfold in China. The leader in China would wear a formal suit and tie on such an occasion. The speech would begin like this: “Ladies and gentleman, good morning! I am honored to present a speech here. At this special moment, please allow me to convey the warmest congratulations on this opening ceremony on behalf of the XXX. I would also like to express my sincere greetings to every one here.” After that, the leader would read the typed-out speech word by word, phrase by phrase, page by page, occasionally raising his head and having a look around with his authoritative eyes. The speech would be so stereotyped that everyone could foretell the speech exactly. The audience would think “What a boring speech!” Of course, in order to save the leader’s face and maintain his status, the organizer would try every means to find as large an audience as possible to make the scene at least look spectacular.
How many in that large audience are unwilling to hear the boring and tedious speech? How many applaud reluctantly? How many yearn for something different such as a fresh speech full of enthusiasm, inspiration and sincerity? When it comes to learning from foreign cultures, let’s not focus on learning superficialities such as wearing a suit and tie. Let’s learn the rhetoric! After all, it is the art of public speech that matters!
Liu Hailin is currently a visiting scholar in the Linguistics Department at Macquarie University, where she conducts research in sociolinguistics under the supervision of Ingrid Piller. Her home university is Shanxi Normal University, where she teaches Comprehensive English and Extensive Reading.