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How to be a peacemaker

From misunderstandings to couple’s quarrels, help restore harmony to any situation

08·15·2017

In a time of escalating tension between hothead leaders in both the US and North Korea, it’s become more important than ever to keep a cool head and strive for peace, lest we all (particularly those of us not far from the Korean peninsula) become radioactive dust. To this end, TWOC has compiled some of the best Chinese phrases for peacemakers. 

Chinese culture places a premium on the concept of “peace.” Throughout history, the refrain that “peace is most precious” (以和为贵 yǐ hé wéi guì) has prevailed. For family affairs, we have the phrase 家和万事兴 (jiā hé wànshì xīng, a peaceful family leads to the success of all things); for business, it’s said that 和气生财 (héqì shēng cái, amiability breeds riches).

However, where there are humans, there are conflicts. Even the happiest couple, closest friends, or most faithful partners will quarrel with each other at some point. At this time, a peacemaker might be necessary. But it’s not an easy role to play. Before you throw yourself into the middle of the battlefield, make sure you’re well prepared with the following phrases.

Many conflicts actually result from misunderstanding. A Chinese idiom says that “a bystander is always clear-minded” (旁观者清 pángguānzhě qīng). As a third party who can see both sides’ points of view, peacemakers can try to fix the problem by explaining the situation. In most cases, they don’t need to focus on what has already happened; instead, they emphasize intentions.

 

He has a sharp tongue [lit. “like a knife”] but a soft heart [like tofu]. Don’t take his words seriously.

Tā zhège rén dāozizuǐ dòufu xīn, shuō dehuà nǐ bié wǎng xīnlǐ qù.

他这个人刀子嘴豆腐心,说的话你别往心里去。

Although he screwed it up, he meant well. I can guarantee he didn’t do that on purpose.

Tā zhè yěshì hǎoxīn bàn huàishì, wǒ gǎn dǎ bǎopiào tā bùshì gùyì de.

他这也是好心办坏事,我敢打保票他不是故意的。

What he said was obviously spoken in anger. Actually, he doesn’t mean that at all.

Tā shuō de míngxiǎn dōu shì qì huà, shíjì shang bìng bùshì nàgè yìsi.

他说的明显都是气话,实际上并不是那个意思。

 

But defending one side in a dispute can be tricky. Sometimes you will make one person feel that you stand with the other, and thus you become “the enemy” as well—the peacemaker inadvertently ends up becoming a troublemaker. This is particularly risky when it comes to family affairs or romantic relationships, which are usually too private for an outsider to intervene in. In such a situation, a peacemaker should avoid deciding who is right and who is wrong. Instead, their task is to downplay the conflict so it ends naturally. In these cases, some old sayings can help.

First, make it clear that you are completely impartial:

 

This is just a case of “everyone has their own way of saying things.” Neither of you is wrong.

Zhè jiàn shì zhēnshi “gōng shuō gōng yǒulǐ, pó shuō pó yǒulǐ”, nǐmen liǎ dōu méi cuò.

这件事真是“公说公有理,婆说婆有理”,你们俩都没错。

 

Then make them feel that it’s no big deal to have a fight:

 

Even your tongue sometimes fights with your teeth. Is there any couple who doesn’t quarrel?

Shétou hé yáchǐ hái dǎjià ne, guòrìzi nǎ yǒu bù chǎojià de?

舌头和牙齿还打架呢,过日子哪有不吵架的?

 

Then, tell them that their problem is not worth blaming each other over:

 

Every family has a skeleton in the closet. Your problem is really not a big deal.

Jiā jiā dōu yǒu běn nán niàn de jīng. Nǐmen zhèxiē wèntí zhēn de méishénme dàbùliǎo de.

家家都有本难念的经。你们这些问题真的没什么大不了的。

 

After the both sides cool down, urge them to patch it up right then, so things don’t turn into a “cold war” later, in which nobody talks to the other side and resentment festers:

 

How can there be resentment between family members for more than one night? Why not make it up now?

Yījiā rén nǎ yǒu géyè chóu? Kuài hé hǎo ba.

一家人哪有隔夜仇?快和好吧。

 

Of course, not everything can be skated over so easily. In many cases, a fight is a fight; there’s no misunderstanding, no room to compromise, and the interested parties won’t let go easily. Then, what can you do? Perhaps create a distraction. After all, there is always something more important, which provides a reason for people to put down their personal emotions. This strategy is especially useful in the workplace.

 

We should give priority to overall interests and finish the task first. Put aside these personal grudges for the moment.

Wǒmen yīnggāi yǐ dàjú wéi zhòng, xiān bǎ xiàngmù wánchéng, sīrén ēnyuàn zànshí fàng dào yībiān.

我们应该以大局为重,先把项目完成,私人恩怨暂时放到一边。

It’s not the right time to find out who was at fault. Our primary task now is to fix the problem our client raised.

Xiànzài bùshì zhuījiù zérèn de shíhòu, wǒmen de shǒuyào rènwù shì jiějué kèhù tíchū de wèntí.

现在不是追究责任的时候,我们的首要任务是解决客户提出的问题。

 

After successfully distracting the antagonists, seize the opportunity afterward to call a truce. If possible, make them promise to never look back on this unhappy event again!

 

This matter ends here. No one is allowed to mention it again.

Zhè jiàn shì dào cǐ wéizhǐ, yǐhòu shéi dōu bùxǔ zài tí.

这件事到此为止,以后谁都不许再提。

It’s time for you guys to bury the hatchet.

Guòqù de bùyúkuài jiù yībǐgōuxiāo ba.

过去的不愉快就一笔勾销吧。

For my sake, let the past go.

Kàn zài wǒ de miànzi shàng, guòqù de shì jiù ràng tā guòqù ba.

看在我的面子上,过去的事就让它过去吧。

 

Sometimes, instead of the full picture, you only have one side of the story. A different strategy is required. One can first choose to deploy a mix of sympathy (“I’m on your side”) and flattery (“Lucky you’re not one to hold a grudge”).

 

Don’t lower yourself to their level.

Bié gēn tāmen yībānjiànshì.

别跟他们一般见识。

It’s said “A chancellor’s mind [lit. ‘stomach’] is broad enough to punt a boat.” It’s his fault, but you’re a bigger person, so don’t argue.

Súhuà shuō:“Zǎixiàng dù lǐ néng chēng chuán”, zhè jiàn shì shì tā bùduì, dàn nǐ dàrén yǒu dàliàng, bié hé tā jìjiàoliǎo.

俗话说:“宰相肚里能撑船”,这件事是他不对,但你大人有大量,别和他计较了。

 

The second method is just the opposite—point out if someone really is to blame, and urge them to fix it voluntarily. You can start by saying:

 

I‘m not judging you, but you really were asking for trouble. You can’t blame others.

Bùshì wǒ shuō nǐ, zhè jiàn shì quèshí shì nǐ méishì zhǎoshì, bùnéng guài biérén.

不是我说你,这件事确实是你没事找事, 不能怪别人。

Your words were too harsh, no wonder she was so mad at you.

Nǐ shuō dehuà yě tài nántīngle, nánguài tā gēn nǐ shēngqì.

你说的话也太难听了,难怪她跟你生气。

 

Of course, it’s not your job to make the peace between others. As the saying goes 解铃还须系铃人 (jiě líng hái xū xì líng rén, colloquially “he who ties the bell on the tiger must be the one to untie it”), suggesting that whoever started the problem should solve it: President Xi Jinping used this phrase when referring to difficulties experienced by New York Times reporters in China.

If you’ve done your best, feel free to flee the premises with this all-purpose exit line:

 

You guys should calm down for a bit. We can talk about the rest some other day.

Nǐmen xiān lěngjìng yīxià, shèng xià de wǒmen gǎitiān zài tán.

你们先冷静一下,剩下的我们改天再谈。


“How to be a peacemaker” is a story from our issue, “Courier Army”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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