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The 21st Century has witnessed integration and increased cultural interaction among people on a previously unprecedented scale. This frequent interaction between people from varied cultures has risen mostly as a result of the advances that have been made in transport and communication technologies (Gudykunst & Mody 2002, p.12). Intercultural interaction has resulted in some problems since different cultures have different norms and value systems.
Communication between people of various cultures has therefore at times been hampered. However, efforts have been made to ensure that intercultural communication is streamlined since communication is the corner stone on which any successful relationship, be it business or personal, is built. These efforts have mostly been successful and people from different cultural backgrounds have been able to communicate effectively.
Despite efforts at making intercultural communication less hectic, there still exist some concepts which are particular to certain cultures. These concepts at times hinder communication efforts since they are not universally acknowledged. One such concept is the concept of face in Chinese culture.
This paper shall set out to argue that the concept of face in Chinese culture complicates intercultural communication. To reinforce this claim, this paper shall discuss how the concept of face influences the communication by the Chinese and how it results in misunderstandings and slows down progress in some instances.
Concept of Face
Face is an important Chinese cultural concept and its implication is felt in all aspects of the Chinese person’s life. Chan (2006, p.2) declares that while face behavior is universal, the concept of face is Chinese in origin.
Its connotation and significance in the Chinese context therefore differs greatly compared to in the other cultures. Face in the Chinese context has varied definitions demonstrating the complexity of the concept in China. Cardon and Scott (2003, p.10) however summarize it as “face relates to a person’s image and status within a social structure.
David Yau Fai goes on to articulate that face is “a concept of central importance because of its pervasiveness with which it asserts its influence in social intercourse. [As a result,] it is virtually impossible to think of a facet of social life to which the question of face is irrelevant” (Quimin D & Yu-Feng 2007, 401). Face therefore dictates all social interaction for Chinese people irrespective of their social, political or economic status.
Concept of Face: A Complication to Communication
One of the concepts of face in Chinese culture is that of losing face. In the Chinese culture, losing one’s face is considered an endangering situation. Fang (1999, p.143) observes that in Chinese tradition, losing face is “equivalent to [literally] losing one’s eyes, nose, and mouth.” Losing face to the Chinese may threaten group integrity or even cause a huge disruption in the fabric of social life.
This is in contrast to the Western world where loss of face only results in personal embarrassment. As a result of this, Wenzhong and Grove (1999, p.125) state that in a business dealing, the Chinese will not directly deny a request but will rather use terms such as “we’ll think this over again” so as to save the face of the other person. This is based on the need to maintain harmony and avoid damaging face.
Boden (2008, p.137) corroborates this claim by stating that a Chinese person will never reply with a “no” since that would imply that the relationship is being damaged. As such, the Chinese individual may reply with “I will do my best” which is the polite way to say no. A person from another culture may interpret this to mean “yes” but to the Chinese, it means “no”. Such indirect statements may result in frustration especially to a person with a Western background where saving face is not a big issue.
Most cultures assume that each person can best advance their interest when the situation at hand is thoroughly understood by means of direct verbal communication (Wenzhong & Grove 1999, p.124). This assumption results in the adoption of directness in interpersonal communications. This is not the case in Chinese culture which places greater emphasis on preserving harmony. The Chinese are therefore only direct in the occasion where no one including themselves is at a risk of losing face.
In the event where there is risk of any party losing face, the Chinese will result to indirect verbal communication or even blatant lying so as to save face. This habit not only complicates intercultural communication but it also impedes on one’s ability to communicate effectively since one has to understand all the innuendos and double speak that the Chinese person may engage in instead of being direct.
As a result of the importance with which saving face is regarded, the Chinese generally adopt non-confrontational strategies in communication. Boden (2008, p.135) documents that in the Chinese culture, assertiveness is not appreciated. This is as opposed to in other cultures of the world where the assertive communication style which has been observed to be of significant help in communication efforts is desirable.
Instead of assertive communication, Chinese culture encourages the use of provisional responses such as “we will reflect on it”, “not convenient” or “a bit difficult” which are al aimed at avoiding direct confrontation and preserving the face of all parties involved. This indirect communication is detrimental since it prevents a person from using assertiveness and other effective communication styles.
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The Chinese concept of face is particularly a hindrance in the business efforts of negotiations. Negotiation is defined as “communication for the purpose of persuasion (Shamir, 2003; Goldberg, Sander & Rogers, 1992).
The negotiation process is therefore a process by which parties to a dispute discuss possible outcomes to their conflict with each other. The parties make proposals, demands and argue out until an acceptable solution is arrived at. Ideally, negotiation is based on concession trading where each party is required to reduce their demands or aspirations so as to accommodate the other party.
This is not the case when negotiating with the Chinese since as Fang (1999, p.148) advices, one must constantly seek to give face to the Chinese and avoid actions that will cause them to lose face. As such, a negotiator may be forced to adopt a negotiation style that is not beneficial for the sake of saving face for the Chinese.
Criticism is an aspect of communication and for one to be an effective communicator, they must learn how to give and receive constructive criticism. In the Western culture, criticism is taken in a positive manner and at times, sarcastic humor can be made to criticize someone and refer to their misdeeds as a joke.
Chinese people avoid all confrontational criticism since it is seen to harm the harmony between people by causing one to lose face (Boden 2008, p.137). Criticism in the Chinese context therefore has to be done in an indirect and non-confrontational way. This hampers communication since one is forced to downplay or altogether ignore the misdeeds of the other person in order prevent them from losing face. Boden (2008, p.137) reveals that criticism may result in the person denying his responsibility so as to save face.
In the western world, reciprocity of action is practiced in that a favor may be owed to a person and returning the favor will be to the individual who is the “original giver”. In the Chinese culture, the face concept of “bao” which means reciprocity differs significantly from the western concept. Chan (2006, p.3) demonstrates that the difference is that while in the Western culture reciprocity is mostly directed towards the individual giver, in the Chinese culture, it is directed towards family members or even close acquaintances.
This difference may hamper communications since reciprocity actions range from favor and hatred, reward and punishment. A person who is not conversant with the Chinese concept may therefore find themselves faced with unwarranted punishment from a Chinese as a result of the misdeeds of his/her family members.
An individual may also be expected to return a favor which since his/her family member(s) owe the Chinese individual a favor. This is perhaps because in Chinese culture, face is not only a person’s private affair but a concern of a person’s whole family, social networks and the community in general (Fang 1999, p.144)
Modern culture strives to deemphasize the social distance that is created by social hierarchies. Wenzhong and Grove (1999, p.123) states that in the Western world, efforts to promote an ethic of egalitarianism (at least superficially) are in play. In such a setting where social mobility is high, there is low authoritarianism and little preoccupation with maintaining a rigid hierarchical order. In the Chinese culture, there is a specific hierarchical order and face is hierarchical for Chinese.
Quimin D & Yu-Feng (2007, p.405) asserts that great importance is placed on status and ranks and the amount of face one possesses is proportional to their social status. Being outspoken may therefore be translated by a Chinese person of high social standing as a sign of disrespect.
Offending an important person in the Chinese business may result in the entire company being offended. Such occurrences complicate intercultural communication since in the Western culture, being outspoken does not necessarily translate to being disrespectful.
Concept of Face: A Benefit to Communication
Wenzhong and Grove (1999, 117) shows that while it may be assumed that the concern for face is solely a Chinese preoccupation, the concept of face exists in all cultural settings since the face concept is a universal concern of human beings.
As such, all societies have some concept of face which is used to maintain smooth relationships based on mutual acceptance of the other person’s face. This being the case, a deeper understanding of face is necessary for the harmonic existence of human beings regardless of their cultural backgrounds. In this respect, the Chinese concepts of face have made a huge contribution to international social sciences.
By bringing face concepts to the forefront, the Chinese have helped social scholars advance in this area. In addition to this, understanding this concepts assist people to better deal with not only Chinese but also other oriental societies since these concepts and behaviors are similar in these collectivist societies (Chan 2006, p.4).
This paper set out to argue that the concept of face in Chinese culture complicates intercultural communication. The paper began by highlighting the definition of “face” in the Chinese culture so as to demonstrate the reverence with which this concept is held within the Chinese context. The discussions presented herein have demonstrated that to the Chinese, saving is very important and it dictates social conduct.
The Chinese will therefore endeavor to save face which they see as being necessary to maintain harmony. This paper has also shown that indirect communication where assertion is minimal is preferred. Non- confrontational dealings are also preferred and the Chinese will employ non-confrontational strategies in communication. In most cases, this approaches are not the optimal ones and their only worth is in preserving face for the parties involved.
From the discussions presented in this paper, it is clear that the concept of face in Chinese results in numerous complications which impede on the communication efforts in the intercultural settings.
While a concern for face exists in all cultures, the Chinese preoccupation with face which has resulted in face taking center stage in all aspects of the Chinese person’s life is detrimental to intercommunication efforts. It can therefore be authoritatively stated that a reduction in emphasis on face by the Chinese can have a positive impact on the intercultural communication efforts leading to a more harmonious world.
Boden, J 2008, The Wall Behind China’s Open Door: Towards Efficient Intercultural Management in China, Asp/Vubpress.
Cardon, PW & Scott, JC 2003, Chinese Business Face: Communication Behaviors and Teaching Approaches, Business Communication Quarterly 66, 9-22.
Chan AM 2006, “The Chinese Concepts of Guanxi, Mianzi, Renqing and Bao: Their Interrelationships and Implications for International Business”, Australian And New Zealand Marketing Academy Conference 4-6 Dec. 2006 Brisbane, Qld.
Fang, F 1999, Chinese business negotiating style, Sage.
Gudykunst, WB & Mody, B 2002, Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication, Sage.
Quimin, D & Yu-Feng, L 2007, The Chinese concept of face: a perspective for business communicators, <http://www.swdsi.org/swdsi07/2007_proceedings/papers/401.pdf>
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