Communicating Effectively with the Chinese


Ge Gao & Stella Ting-Toomey

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  • Communicating Effectively in Multicultural Contexts

    Series Editors: William B. Gudykunst and Stella Ting-Toomey

    Department of Speech Communication California State University, Fullerton

    The books in this series are designed to help readers communicate effectively in various multicultural contexts. Authors of the volumes in the series translate relevant communication theories to provide readable and comprehensive descriptions of the various multicultural contexts. Each volume contains specific suggestions for how readers can communicate effectively with members of different cultures and/or ethnic groups in the specific contexts covered in the volume. The volumes should appeal to people interested in developing multicultural awareness or improving their communication skills, as well as anyone who works in a multicultural setting.

    Volumes in this series


      William B. Gudykunst and Tsukasa Nishida


      Richard W. Brislin and Tomoko Yoshida


      Gary L. Kreps and Elizabeth N. Kunimoto


      A Social-Interpretive Approach

      Stephen P. Banks


      Ge Gao and Stella Ting-Toomey


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    “You speak very good English,” a North American compliments a Chinese. The Chinese responds, “Oh, no! My English still needs improving.” The North American is puzzled by the Chinese person's reply and the Chinese is unaware that he or she has violated an American cultural rule concerning how a compliment should be received. Intercultural communication styles and what constitutes appropriate and effective styles have always captivated our interest and fascination. This book is a reflection of that interest, and more important, it epitomizes our observation and experience of how Chinese communicate among themselves and with people from other cultures.

    Chinese culture, along with other cultures, has its specific rules and norms for everyday social interaction. Variations in cultural assumptions, perceptions, and expectations often are grounds for intercultural miscommunication and misunderstanding. Questions such as what constitutes a polite interaction may provoke very different answers from people of different cultures. Consequently, both formal and informal exchanges in conversations among culturally different people can indeed be problematic. The goal of this book is to respond to this intellectual and pragmatic bewilderment, voiced by many people, by examining issues of communication in Chinese culture and in Chinese-Chinese and Chinese-North American encounters. It draws on work in communication, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy and utilizes the perspective of self and OTHER as a conceptual foundation for portraying and interpreting the dynamics of Chinese communication. Although this book is conceptually based, realistic instances of everyday talk will be incorporated to illustrate the specific characteristics and functions of Chinese communication.

    A point of clarification is needed here for the terms Chinese and North American. Chinese refers to not only Chinese in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan but also those in Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States, as well as in many other geographical regions throughout the world. In this book, we do not suggest that Chinese are a homogeneous cultural group or that every Chinese person is a typical Chinese. Neither do we attempt to account for ways of communicating and relating of each and every aforementioned group. We hope, however, to provide an analysis of aspects of Chinese communication that, we believe, have transcended the geographical and political boundaries but, nevertheless, are distinctively Chinese. By the same token, the term North American does not imply every North American, given the ethnic and cultural diversity that exists in the United States. For the sake of the flow and readability of the book, we chose not to qualify terms such as Chinese and North American with most, many, middle class, male, or urban every time we used them. The generalizations we make refer to general patterns of communication with an understanding that individual and situational variations do exist.

    This book is intended for anyone who seeks to have both a conceptual and a practical understanding of Chinese communication practices and their underlying cultural premises. After reading the book, the reader should have a good grasp of some prevalent cultural assumptions underlying everyday communicative activities in Chinese culture. Specifically, the reader should have a clear understanding how self-conception, role and hierarchy, relational dynamics, and face affect ways of conducting everyday talk in Chinese culture. Understanding the conceptual and practical issues discussed in this book will help the reader to better interact with Chinese. Those who share cultural characteristics with Chinese also may find our discussion of Chinese communication processes applicable.

    The completion of this book would have been impossible without the contributions of many people. We owe an intellectual debt to those who have paved the way to a better understanding of Chinese people and whose work has been an integral part of this book. Among them, there are philosophers, psychologists, linguists, and communication scholars who deserve our special recognition. In addition, we thank Bill Gudykunst for his thoughtful support and encouragement. Bill has collaborated with us, at different times, on various studies concerning Chinese. His insightful suggestions and comments for this book are greatly appreciated. In completing this book, we have drawn extensively on materials from Gao (1996), and Gao, Ting-Toomey, and Gudykunst (1996). The writing of this book was also in part made possible by a faculty development grant from San Jose State University awarded to Gao. Last, but not least, we extend our special thanks to our loved ones—Trevor, Ian, Charles, and Adrian. Without their unending understanding and comfort, this book would not have been completed.

  • Epilogue

    In this book, we have identified, described, and conceptualized some of the distinctive communication practices in Chinese culture from the self-OTHER perspective. One of our objectives in writing this book was to make a concerted effort to “make explicit what is implicit.” We hope this book will serve as a useful stepping-stone toward advancing your understanding of Chinese communication and its situated cultural context. Given the lack of systematic research in Chinese communication patterns, we were unable to address many issues in an in-depth manner. Much future work, therefore, is needed to provide a theoretical, empirical, and contextualized account of the way of communicating in Chinese culture. Here, we will first address some of the conceptual and methodological limitations of our current discussion and then present several fruitful areas for conducting communication research in the future.


    Given that there is a limited amount of theorizing and research in Chinese communication practices, we were only able to present some working knowledge concerning this area. Our conceptions, interpretations, analyses, and conclusions are based primarily on the newly developed model, the self-OTHER perspective. Needless to say, many of the theoretical observations must be tested and verified empirically in future studies. Furthermore, our discussion of Chinese communication practices is neither exclusive nor exhaustive. Many other communication practices await further investigation. One such practice, for example, is guan xing (; “to show concern”). Guan xing is an everyday vocabulary that the vast majority of Chinese use in their interpersonal encounters. Guan xing talk embodies the relational focus of Chinese communication and is widely used to initiate and consolidate personal relationships. Therefore, it is necessary for us to pay close attention to vocabularies and metaphors that Chinese utilize in their daily lives to achieve a deeper level of understanding of Chinese communication practices.

    In addition, research findings included in this book primarily are from survey-based studies. Self-report data not only are confined to the preestablished scope of the inquiry but also are limited to perceptions of actual communication practices. Chinese communication research needs to examine actual communicative behaviors in addition to thoughts (Ma, 1990). Research on Chinese communication, therefore, will benefit tremendously from studies of actual discourse taking place in naturalistic settings, open-ended in-depth interviews, and ethnographic observations (Hymes, 1974). Rich descriptions gained from those methods will help better conceptualize and understand Chinese communication practices. The use of cultural scripts formulated according to lexical universals also lends itself to analyzing and explaining communication patterns (Wierzbicka, 1996). Wierzbicka's approach of cultural scripts seems to be much more revealing in explicating culture-specific norms and ways of communicating than are binary labels such as direct and indirect. Finally, the study of communication practices in an experimental setting provides yet another useful alternative. Exploring how Chinese actually respond to a particular structured situation has generated some provocative findings (Bond & Venus, 1991; Pierson & Bond, 1982). Understanding of communication similarities and differences can be further refined by comparing Chinese experimental interactions with those of other cultural groups.

    It is important to note that in this book we do not suggest that an implicit style of talk is preferred to an explicit one. Rather, we believe that there are consequences associated with a culture or a person's preference of any one style of communication to another. For example, there are numerous stories told about how two Chinese, who share mutual affection and love but take no initiative in expressing it directly to each other, report their deepest regret and sorrow after they accidentally discover the truth many years later. To a Chinese person, not being forthright in one's talk can be both an asset and an impediment. Therefore, it is imperative for us to fully understand the cultural underpinnings of talk to minimize ethnocentric interpretations.

    Future Avenues of Inquiry

    We propose that three levels of inquiry are necessary for a systematic and holistic understanding of Chinese communication practices. The first level involves cultural domains of analyses, pertaining to questions such as the following: What are some of the Chinese behavioral rules about communication? What communicative genres characterize Chinese communication? What speech acts/tasks are most susceptible to intercultural miscommunication? The second level of inquiry concerns the influence of social variables, such as age, gender, level of education, status, and geographical location, on communication. Finally, the third level of inquiry addresses dimensions of specific communicative acts and their implications for everyday interaction.

    The first level of inquiry concerns the cultural domains of analysis. Liu (1986) argues that the value systems of various cultures are very remote from observable behavior. A mediating construct that can bridge the gap between the two involves the use of unique condition-action rules acquired by different people. To better understand the actual communication practices in Chinese culture, it is imperative for us to identify distinct sets of behavioral rules acquired by Chinese in their everyday interactions. One example of a behavioral rule is the “face concern” rule, which declares that if a conflict arises, the best strategy is to avoid it (Liu, 1986). In addition to identifying behavioral rules, the cultural level of investigation entails seeking out emic concepts that significantly define everyday Chinese communication practices. An example of one such concept is mian zi. As Young (1994) asserts, “Face [mian zi] goes deep to the core of a Chinese person's identity and integrity” (p. 19). “Mian zi talk” makes up a unique genre of Chinese communication, and it has a profound impact on Chinese daily personal and social interactions. It thus warrants further exploration and observation. Another Chinese genre of talk involves the notions of zi ji ren (; “insiders”) and wai ren (; “outsiders”). Careful and close examinations of questions such as how Chinese talk to insiders (i.e., “insider talk”) compared with outsiders (i.e., “outsider talk”) will contribute to our further understanding of characteristics of Chinese communication.

    Furthermore, the cultural level of analysis can focus on identifying what types of speech acts or tasks are most likely to create cultural misinterpretations and misunderstanding. One way to accomplish this is to examine how various speech acts or tasks have been conceptually defined by Chinese observers and to pinpoint the relational properties or dimensions they possess. An investigation of culture-specific meanings of various speech acts or tasks will help us understand and better interpret existing cross-cultural differences and overlaps. For example, unlike North Americans, Chinese distinguish disagreement from injury and disappointment, and they also exhibit a lower level of discontent with disagreement than with injury and disappointment (Ma, 1990). This finding can be attributed to the fact that disagreement, injury, and disappointment are viewed differently in two cultures. We presume that Chinese would view disagreement as less face threatening to personal relationships than injury or disappointment because disagreement is more task related in the Chinese interaction context than are injury or disappointment. North Americans, however, are likely to conceptualize them as situations in which the independent self has been challenged, and a response is warranted. They tend not to perceive that one message can possess multiple layers of face implications. Another approach entails conducting in-depth analyses of speech acts such as giving explanation, arguing over a point, taking a position on a controversial issue, making requests, asking for favors, giving compliments, making excuses, refusing, dealing with conflicts, negotiating contracts, and expressing personal opinions. To uncover cultural expectations and assumptions embedded in these speech acts will help improve communication between Chinese and others.

    The second level of inquiry (i.e., social level of inquiry) provides another fertile area for future research. Our understanding of Chinese communication processes will be broadened and deepened when variables such as gender, age, education, social status, regional dialect, and geographical or regional location are taken into consideration. Gilligan (1993) argues that “since masculinity is defined through separation while femininity is defined through attachment, male gender identity is threatened by intimacy while female gender identity is threatened by separation” (p. 8). The contrastive needs of men and women in their developmental processes thus give rise to gendered communication practices. Imperative questions that need to be addressed include the following: To what extent is Gilligan's assessment applicable to Chinese culture? How do we characterize Chinese women's communication practices compared with those of Chinese men? Is mian zi, for example, a more or less significant concern for Chinese women than for Chinese men? Age is another variable that needs to be examined in connection with Chinese communication practices. Younger people and older people construct their social realities differently. For example, older Chinese people (50+ years) assign greater importance to harmonious family relations and contributions to society, whereas younger Chinese people (29–49 years) view true love, living happily, and enjoying life as more important (Chu & Ju, 1993). Regional disparity in children's socialization can also be attributed to differences in communication within the Chinese cultural milieu. In one study, an overwhelming majority of parents in Shanghai and a slight majority of parents in Singapore endorsed the statement, “Parents should not display intimacy in the presence of their child,” but parents in Taiwan did not endorse the statement and indicated that it is not improper for parents to show intimacy in front of their child. Moreover, Chinese parents in Taiwan do not think that children should be assertive, whereas those in Singapore permit their children to be assertive (Wu, 1996). Within China, dialect variations in different regions can also create a profound effect on the content and the intensity of the different types of relational talk.

    The third level of analysis, the communication level, focuses on various dimensions of specific communicative acts and their implications for everyday speaking practices. To fully understand how Chinese give and receive compliments, for example, we first need to examine the domain of compliments. That is, what are appropriate “complimenting zones” (e.g., personal appearance, achievement, and luck) in Chinese culture? We then need to determine in what situations Chinese are expected to receive compliments and in what situations they are to reject them in a self-effacing manner. Identifying skillful versus unskillful complimenting interaction strategies is yet another important part of this research process. This multidimensional approach to the study of communication has helped generate some illuminating results that led us to rethink, redefine, and redesign the scope of our investigation. One such example involves the study of assertiveness (Chan, 1993). Moving away from viewing assertiveness as a unidimensional construct, Chan argues that assertiveness is a multidimensional construct and situation specific. His study of Hong Kong students reveals that assertive responses are achievement related and unassertive responses are expressions of negative feelings, needs, and dissatisfaction, thus providing support for his argument (Chan, 1993).


    In this book, we have examined the Chinese self-construal, Chinese personal relationship development processes, Chinese speaking practices, the concept of mian zi, and problematic areas of communication between Chinese and North Americans. Our analysis of Chinese communication is situated in a discussion and an investigation of the Chinese cultural context. We believe that without a sound understanding of Chinese cultural premises and assumptions concerning communication, full comprehension of why Chinese communicate the way they do and how to actually engage in effective communication with them will not be possible. Thus, the purpose of this book is to provide both a conceptual and a practical guide to understanding communication practices in Chinese culture. We hope this book is successful in addressing some of the issues that have concerned many about Chinese communication patterns. Finally, we envision that this book will not only spark interest in the study of Chinese communication practices but also, more important, help raise some challenging questions for future theory development and research in this area.


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    About the Authors

    Ge Gao is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Jose State University. Her research interests include Chinese communication processes, cross-cultural interpersonal relationship development, and intercultural communication. Her publications have appeared in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Communication Quarterly, and Communication Research Reports, among others.

    Stella Ting-Toomey is Professor of Speech Communication at California State University, Fullerton. She is author and editor of 10 books. Three recent book titles are The Challenge of Facework: Cross-Cultural and Interpersonal Issues; Building Bridges: Interpersonal Skills for a Changing World (coauthor); and Communication in Personal Relationships Across Cultures (coeditor). She has published extensively on cross-cultural facework, intercultural conflict, Asian communication patterns, and the effective identity negotiation model. She has held major leadership roles in international communication associations and has served on numerous editorial boards. She has lectured widely throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe on the topic of intercultural facework management. She is an experienced trainer in the area of transcultural competence.

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