Crossing the Culture Gulf: The Rhetoric of “Minding Your Own Business”


Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 491, July 25 – August 7, 2014)

By Frank Lee

“Mind your own business” is the defining language of US-Sino discourse, and pretty much sums up the entire US-Sino diplomacy. A brief purview of contemporary events amply illustrates this point. When the US points out to China the issue of currency control, China tells US to mind their own problems and fix their debts first. When the US expresses concern over China’s dangerous conduct and intimidation of Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, China’s response? “Don’t worry about it. Not your business.”

“Mind your own business” is a phrase with rhetorical force, and is often used as a sleight of hand to quell criticisms and to avoid confronting one’s own problems.

When should one mind his own business?

To be fair, when one tells another to mind his own business, sometimes he does make a valid point. There are some matters where another simply should not interfere. Imagine a parent raising a child. One might take issue with the parent’s approach to the child’s upbringing, but he may not compel the parent to adopt his approach, and neither can he take the child and raise the child himself. This is because the parent is the sole guardian of the child; he alone is given the power of care and control over the child.

But this point cannot be pushed too far. A parent may exercise extensive control over the child, but his power over the child is not absolute. For instance, a parent may not sexually abuse his child. National sovereignty follows a broadly similar concept. Sovereignty is absolute in meaning but not absolute in scope. A sovereign has absolute decision making powers in a large range of matters, but there remain some things that he may not do. For instance, he may not commit genocide on his own people.

With globalisation, the concept of national sovereignty is becoming an increasingly otiose word. A sovereign’s decision often has international reverberations. Take the South China Sea dispute for example. If it escalates into an armed conflict, it will not only result in casualties from the participating nations, but also the shutdown of crucial shipping routes and immense loss to international trade and economy.

Sometimes, one may tell another to mind his own business as he has such pressing problems of his own that he really should be focusing on himself. The matter may be made worse if, in the spirit of escapism, the critic distracts himself with another’s problems so he may avoid having to deal with his own. It would also be troublesome if a government deliberately focuses on foreign policy to divert the people’s attention from pressing domestic issues at home.

Therefore, it is clear that there are some situations where it is perfectly legitimate to tell another to mind his own business. However, the mischief lies in using the phrase as a blunt rhetoric at every convenience to quell criticisms and to avoid one’s own problems.

A serious problem

Taking a hard look at the phrase “mind your own business”, one may realise that it often contains an implicit concession of fault. One often chooses the phrase because he finds it hard to meet the criticism on its merit. In such cases, the use of the rhetoric reflects a refusal to adapt and change despite knowledge of one’s own mistakes.

At other times, the use of this rhetoric reflects a total disinterest in another’s feedback.

Both situations reflect a defensive stance and an aversion to external criticisms. This is troubling. For the past ten years, human rights and income inequality under the regime of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is consistently on the decline despite repeated criticisms. For instance, a new study by University of Michigan shows that China’s Gini-coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is now around 0.55, among the highest in the world. This is not a criticism of the CCP’s lack of improvement per se, but its lack of improvement as a response to external criticisms. It is true that such external criticisms are not always right and do not always need to be accepted, but the CCP’s rejection of external criticisms is not one of rational consideration but one of complete disregard.

Fix yourself before criticising others

Sometimes, the person making the criticism has discernable flaws of his own. This gives the phrase “mind your own business” additional rhetorical force. What gives you the right to criticise me when you can’t even handle your own problems?

However, this superficial logic does not hold water upon further scrutiny.

In the Bible, Jesus once said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your eye?” Likewise, an ancient Chinese scholar once wrote, “Sweep the snow at your own doorstep but do not bother with the frost on your neighbour’s roof” to caution the populace against selfishness. Across different cultures, these predecessors gave us a consistent advice – do not criticise others but ignore your own flaws. But the meaning of this principle is often misconceived.

First, the essence of this message is the idea of self-reflection which is a personal initiative. It does not give the person being criticised the right to demand self-reflection from the critic. What he should instead do is to accept the criticism and reflect on himself.

Secondly, self-reflection and external feedback are not mutually exclusive acts. Just because one has problems of his own does not mean that he may not point out the mistake of another. Oftentimes, it is precisely because one has made a similar mistake and learnt its lesson that he wants to share his experience with others. When a parent teaches a child, the parent may not be faultless, but it does not make her teachings any less sound. When an author writes an investment guidebook, he might well be a bankrupt himself.

No one is perfect. If one may not criticise another just because he has failings of his own, few would ever be able to advise others. This is a prevalent problem in Chinese discourse, and it is exemplified by the Chinese government. For instance, when the US urges China to improve its human rights, the Chinese government’s response has always been to wave off the criticism and instead point at US’ own human right flaws.

The solution

What then is the solution to the problem? The most obvious solution is to abandon the “mind your own business” rhetoric and be truly receptive to criticisms.

There is an ancient Chinese saying, “Be happy when another points out your mistake.” Indeed, each knowledge of a mistake is an opportunity to improve.

There is also a deeper meaning to this phrase. Sometimes, our flaws are systematic in nature and we would never be able to discern them unless we reflect from an external vantage point. This is why external criticisms are so helpful sometimes, because it brings our attention to mistakes that we would never discover on our own. Take the Chinese society for example. The contemporary Chinese history is pervaded with violent political movements and human rights abuses. In such an environment, it may be difficult for the Chinese to appreciate the nature and severity of its human right issues.

Secondly, it may be the case that the other party really should be minding its own business. In such cases, it is better to explain and articulate the exact reason why he should not interfere, instead of using the blunt rhetoric to ward off every criticism. Take the South China Sea dispute for instance. China could do better explaining why it should be a private dispute between the parties, rather than bluntly asserting that one should mind his own business.

Finally, if another has made a similar mistake on a similar point, the proper approach is not to silence him by seizing on his flaws, but to accept his criticisms and point out his own mistakes in the spirit of reciprocity. This transforms a criticism into a mutual dialogue and it affords both parties an opportunity to improve in the spirit of amicability and good will.

Frank Lee is a Chinese immigrant. During his stay in Singapore, Frank experiences a great contrast between the social and cultural conditions of Singapore and those of China. He finds this contrast fascinating and illuminating, and has graciously volunteered to share his reflections with The Epoch Times. The views and opinions expressed in this editorial are solely those of the original writer. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Epoch Times.

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