Understanding Chinese Culture

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By Yang Gan Fu WINDHOEK It is a general consensus that communication styles are strongly linked to cultural values, thoughts, beliefs, religion, history, attitudes and other cultural dimensions. Deeply rooted cultural values, beliefs and attitudes by different cultures breed communicative styles that are fundamentally different, at odds, juxtaposed, and stylistically distant. In this sense, verbal communication, the talk, and conversation of everyday social, habits of thoughts and business life are all strongly tied to cultures, and can be explained and made sense of, in terms of independently established different cultural values and cultural priorities. As intercultural researches have evidently proved, cultural values, worldview (religion), and social organizations (family and state) are the three major socio-cultural elements that directly influence perception and communication. China and Africa have a long and traditionally good relation. The African continent is witnessing increased Chinese investments, and more exchange activities in education, technology, agriculture, industry and culture. China’s rapid economic development encourages and facilitates Sino-Africa relations to move forward at an even faster pace. Today, economic, political, and cultural cooperation between China and African countries is unprecedented in history. However, such interactions, as any other intercultural interactions, are not free of intercultural miscommunication due to the two different cultural communication styles. Working and studying in Africa for many years, I have witnessed much intercultural miscommunication between Chinese and Africans in the area of work attitudes, catering culture, daily trade activities, service section, education, religions, gender, age, and patterns of thoughts, to list a few. It is therefore quite important to develop intercultural platform between the two cultures to avoid such miscommunication. To this end, for a successful communication between the two differing cultures, we need to be aware of the following ABC Chinese culture and its relevant cultural dimensions. 1. China’s 5 000 years continuous history of civilization as a country and its culture has a profound influence on the character of people raised in this country. Unlike those Western nations which have individualist cultural identities, China belongs to collectivist’ culture which uses a spiral mode taking all contextual conditions into consideration, looks at the “big picture,” then decides on how to solve the issue. This cultural dimension of Chinese plays a fundamental role in Chinese communication strategies. 2. In China and Asia, Confucianism is the fundamental philosophy underlying people’s values, attitudes, and behavior. Hence, status difference overrules social distance. According to Confucius, the greatest ancient philosopher in China, one has to develop a sense of who one is in relation to the sphere of differential status, authority and power regarding the human being’s place in political domain. One has to employ honorifics no matter how close they may be when one speaks to a superior or an elder. Superior in the workplace must act with virtue, and those in inferior positions must obey their superior. One should act dutifully toward one’s parents, and elders, reciprocally in one’s obligations, and respectfully in role differentiation. In Western societies, however, of the two essential dimensions of interpersonal relationships (i.e., intimacy or social distance and power or status difference) the intimacy or social distance has more influences on code-choice since the historic egalitarian movement which advocated equal rights. 3. Different cultures may produce different attitudes to time which may construct different communication styles. Generally, there are two attitudes to time: monochromic patterns in individualistic cultures, in which one thing is done at a time, and polychromic patterns in collectivistic cultures, in which multiple events are scheduled simultaneously. These different time patterns suggest that individualistic cultures are more task oriented in contrast to the relational and socio-emotional orientation of collectivistic cultures. Westerners usually have a synchronous approach to time, which results emphasis on time deadlines and sequential, efficient task performance. By contrast, Easterners traditionally use more polychromous approach to time, with less emphasis on prioritizing tasks and an approximate attitude to timeframes. These approaches to time can be linked with direct versus indirect communication strategies. For Confucians, the past, present and the future are dialectically connected and deadlines are moveable and not immutable. As one remembers one’s past, one creates one’s present and future. Such differing time attitudes of Chinese may produce problems between Chinese and Westerners. The Chinese forecasting and planning in a business context is different from the ‘western’ one and therefore may present problems for those who operate within that cultural framework which sees time as objective clock time or calendar time. Potential clashes can exist between members of business groups with different time orientation: for example, between members who favour a “past-present” focus and members who favour a “future” focus. While business members from the first group like Chinese want to view everything from the company’s history and traditions, members from the latter group want to bypass the past and plan ahead efficiently for an immediate future. Individuals with a “past-present” focus have a long-term view of time, whereas individuals with a “future” focus have a short- to medium-term view of time. 4. Chinese are generally High Context Culture which characteristics are group-oriented values, mutual-face concern, spiral logic, indirect style, status-oriented style, self effacement style, listener-oriented style and context-based understanding. By contrast, most Westerners belong to Low Context Culture which characteristics are individualistic values, self-face concern, linear logic, direct style, person-oriented style, self-enhancement style, speaker-oriented style and verbal-based understanding. Specifically, I would like to introduce four major characteristics of Chinese communication: a) han xu or implicit communication, b) ting hua or listening centeredness, c) ke qi or politeness, and d) zi ji ren or a focus on insiders. The Chinese phrase of han xu refers to a mode of communication (both verbal and non-verbal) that is contained, reserved, implicit, and indirect. In Chinese interactions, both participants are very ke qi (polite). In their daily life, Chinese do not take words literally; rather, they believe in yi za yan wai (meaning lies beyond words), use the pronoun “we” to express not only group views but also personal ones, and beat around the bush. The above Chinese cultural values determine to the great extent the communication strategies Chinese adopt. Next, I will briefly introduce three Chinese communication strategies, namely, harmony, politeness and face concern. 1. Harmony Confucian values lead to conformity being a central value in Chinese society. The main objective of communication under Confucian ideology is to initiate, develop, and maintain social relationships. The Confucian concept of ‘Chung Yung’ from the Doctrine of the Mean asks individuals to adapt themselves to their collectivity; to control their emotion; to avoid conflict and competition. As a result of these cultural values, Chinese generally exhibit low levels of assertiveness and confrontation, engage in less extreme verbal posturing, less emotive language. The Confucian-based notion of harmony is one of the main Chinese manifestations of the collective ideal (Low Individualism Index). Taoism which, like Confucianism, also breeds Chinese cultural identities, claims that non-confrontation is a moral behavior. Such cultural dimension lead to an implicit communication style Chinese adapt. An implicit style of communication enables one to negotiate meanings with others in interpersonal relationships and to help maintain existing relationships among individuals without destroying group harmony. Thus, seeking harmony with others and preserving peaceful relations with others becomes a primary task in a person’s relational development and interpersonal communication. In addition, to protect face and preserve interpersonal harmony, as well as the cohesion of the group, Chinese tend to adopt unassertive style of communication in interpersonal interactions. Chinese have learned to be strategically unassertive by articulating their intentions in an indirect manner and leaving room for negotiations in private. Chinese people have been thought to promote harmony by avoiding discussing potential interpersonal problems. However, harmony motives in China can also refer to the desire to strengthen relationships and solve problems out of a genuine concern for harmony as value in and of itself. Harmonious relation building is extremely important in doing business with Chinese. The crucial feature of any negotiation with Chinese is to identify common interests and not just a mutually acceptable outcome. Chinese are looking for a commitment to work together and the possibility of developing a relationship that will enable the inevitable unanticipated problems that may arise later to be solved. Therefore, building effective relationships is therefore a vital to the success of business negotiation and are often more important than the negotiated document. Most Chinese believe that the primary purpose of a business contract is to establish a positive relationship that focuses on shared interests. Therefore, many contracts are drafted in terms of principles rather than specifics. Chinese values such as mutuality and reciprocity also point to a negotiation style which veers towards a win-win outcome rather than a win-lose one, or what is known as the zero sum negotiation style. Winning in this sense is not defined in terms of how little one has lost to the other side per se, but how much both sides have gained in terms of human rewards, that is, having the assurance that the social relationships will continue and will be long term instead of short term, that a foundation is laid for enriching and deepening the relationship. 2. Politeness Politeness in communication has been taken as an important communication strategy although different cultures have different ways to express and interpret it. Politeness is seen as a promoting strategy whereby speakers achieve a variety of goals, such as promoting or maintaining harmonious interpersonal relations. According to Confucius’ Book of Rites (Li Ji), rituals are to do with the human being’s ability to communicate with others and is the hallmark of appropriate social interaction within the context of a person’s social relationships. Ritualisation therefore encompasses in a total way all the means of communicationÃÆ’Æ‘ÂÂÃÆ’ÂÀÃ…¬ÃÆ’ÂÃ’šÂ¬Ã‚Âverbal and nonverbal. The Confucian legacy throughout the East Asia promotes social relationships and concern for others, therefore requiring an essential politeness and diplomacy, whereas the philosophies of the West, individualism and rationalism, promote freedom of speech, truth, logical thinking and objectivity, leading to explicit speech codes. Chinese limao (politeness) has three parts: the notion of ‘respectfulness (‘self’s appreciation of the other’s positive face’), the notion of ‘attitudinal warmth’ (self’s demonstration of kindness and consideration), and the notion of ‘refinement’ (self behavior which meets certain standards). Chinese polite system includes all aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication. The way language is used, the intonations of speech and the ways people are addressed according to a status hierarchy are part of this polite system. The self-effacing verbal style Chinese adopt emphasizes the importance of humbling oneself via verbal restraints, hesitations, modest talk, and the use of self-depreciation concerning one’s effort or performance. 3. Face Concern As an important cultural factor in intercultural communication, face concerns have been studied by many researchers. Empirical evidence has proved that different cultures have different ways to express face wants, to give face, to save face. Interpretation of face-gaining, face-losing is also different across cultures. Lim and Browers propose that all human beings have three distinct face wants: (a) autonomy face (i.e. the want not to be imposed on), (b) fellowship face (i.e. the want to be included and (c) competence face (the want that their abilities to be respected). In individualistic cultures, face is associated mostly with self-worth, self-presentation, and self-value. In collectivistic Chinese cultures, however, face means projected social image and social self-respect. Gaining and losing face is connected closely with issues of social pride, honor, dignity, shame, disgrace, humility, trust, mistrust, respect and prestige. The great importance of trust in Chinese business behavior and the resulting informality as to contracts and agreements rest on the common adoption of lian (Chinese language for face concern) as a moral foundation. Ting-Toomey and Oetzel claim that individualism and independent self construals cause self-face concerns, which result in dominating and competing conflict styles. Yet, collectivism and interdependent self construals lead to other- and mutual-face concerns, which result in avoiding, obliging, and integrating conflict styles. Generally, Chinese have an interdependent self-construal. They want to fit in with others, act appropriately, promote other goals and value conformity and cooperation. When communicating with others, Chinese value other-face and mutual-face concerns. They are eager to appeal to other-face concerns in problematic situations in order to preserve relational harmony and to avoid public embarrassment. Yang Gan Fu is an Associate Professor in English Linguistics at Lian Yun Gang Teachers College in China. He is also an independent linguistic services consultant.

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