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Chinese Communication Style | Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3897 words Published: 7th Aug 2018

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Language is a multifunctional tool that allows people to satisfy variety of needs from socio-cultural to political necessities. The need to express its importance in communication does not have to be stressed since the two are intertwined. The communication style in China has its respective cultural milieus with different forms and purposes as well as varying intensity, emotional charge and dimensions. This has to be understood well by a person wanting to interact in an intercultural dimension. Choosing the appropriate language style is equally important especially in dealing with people from other cultures.

The Cultural Revolution in China greatly affected the contemporary Chinese way of communicating particularly with the use of aggressive speeches during conflicts, formalized speeches during public gatherings, and humorous speeches during of turmoil. Dehumanization using undesirable animals was not uncommon during the period when enemies were considered as a class.

Because of the diverse and complex communication style of Chinese, several commentators posited their view stating that such kind of communication needs to be improved or perhaps corrected. First, the arrangement of words and design of Chinese calligraphy make it hard for new language learners to embrace the language and adapt the communication style. Second, it deviates from the virtues of the simplistic alphabet. For Chinese’s part, the factors affecting their communication should first be understood and only then critics can truly appreciate the language. The tonal designs of the language as well as typographical structuring affect how they talk. The discipline as well in schools during early childhood of young Chinese gives them that sense of responsibility to include others and their talks and be concerned for the latter’s feelings rather than be self-contained.

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The two dichotomies often used to compare Chinese communication and English communication are the direct/linear style and indirect/circular style. The Chinese communication uses the indirect/circular style of reasoning. Kaplan’s findings in his contrastive study between English and Chinese communication style revealed that Chinese tend to be indirect, making illustrative and suggestive remarks first before going to the main issue. He called this pattern the Oriental style where people in diffused culture reason in a circling manner, starting from the farthest point, and ends with the main point. This is in contrast to the traditional American style of reasoning wherein they present first the main idea of an issue and then try to discuss the less important issues after. This style of Chinese reasoning appears to be lengthy and irritating for others, but for the Chinese, it serves as a channel in building relationships and saving face. Straightforward reasoning for them in turn appears to be harsh and arrogant. Such indirect reasoning is applied also in dispute resolution where statement of background information comes first before presenting the main argument.

In all of these, the need to understand how Chinese think and communicate is important in the hope of a more interrelated world. The communication style of China has existed even during ancient times and up to now continues to be a heritage of the country. It gave them sense of pride as an individual and unity as a nation.


Different cultures have varying systems of meanings (i.e. language) that makes it difficult to have a smooth flow of communication with them. Language is an important issue in one’s intercultural marriage, interpersonal interactions, and interpretation and translation. It is a multifunctional tool wherein from the cultural perspective, serves as a channel in transmitting culture from generation to generation. It also creates linkages between individuals in order for them to establish a shared identity. And lastly, in the political sense, it unites the leaders and members of the society and identifies their boundaries as a country. Communication in China has its respective cultural milieus with different forms and purposes as well as varying intensity, emotional charge and dimensions. The Chinese language has a distinctive feature which has been interpreted by other cultures in different contexts. For instance, in a simple communication between Chinese and American, the latter may interpret the former’s answer as “yes” when in fact he means “no.” A lot of people had posited comments saying that Chinese are very illustrative and suggestive in making statements and often do not go directly to the point. Because they have their own way of expressing emotions, they appear to be inscrutable and reserved to others.

In dealing interpersonally, one must be aware that there are rules and standards for appropriate language style to be used. One should see to it that the style fits the genre and tone he wishes to convey. For instance, exaggeration during formal occasions usually gives listeners irritations since most wise people abhor advertisements where everything is over, hyper, or ultra. Better yet, one should remain reserved or attune himself. This study deals with how Chinese communicate, their communication styles, and communication issues. Hopefully after the end of the discussion, one would have a better understanding on the Chinese diaspora and a better appreciation of the Chinese communication style.


To have a better understanding and stronger foundation on the Chinese communication styles, it is important to tackle first some of the historical events that affected it. After discussing this, only then we can have the better ability to criticize their communication issues from its use in ordinary discourse to the more complicated situations (i.e. dispute resolution). We begin with China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which greatly contributed to China’s symbolic aggressive communication.

Moral Language and Political Speeches. Moralistic and political languages are interrelated with one another and cannot be separated, at least in China. The moral language has been used mainly to persuade people. Political speeches from rulers were considered moral sermons. For instance, during religious wars and terrorisms, the use of moral message to justify these events were accepted by people. When a ruler says that a particular individual is China’s enemy, then he must be so. The danger of moralistic language is that it gives a limited and a fancy sense of superiority and confidence. As an example, an ordinary speaker would try to memorize speeches and poems of a leader he idolizes and condemns the enemies of that leader.

Rhetoric Dehumanization. The most common forms of dehumanization during the Cultural Revolution were through animal metaphors. Enemies of China were depicted in pictures as undesirable animals such as “cow ghosts,” “monsters,” “demons;” and “parasites.” These animal metaphors permeated the way Chinese write and speak. During rallies or political sessions, posters and slogans with dehumanizing animals were used to express their hatred to the social structures or enemies of the society. The use of these posters was the only way Chinese could communicate with the royal persons. Chinese communists created class labels distinguishing “the people” and “the enemies of the people.”

The Impact on Communication of China’s Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution of China not only altered its culture but also affected the manner Chinese people communicate both in official and interpersonal levels. The following are the rhetorical patterns relative to communication styles during the Cultural Revolution:

Aggressive speech. It became common in China that when a person tried to express his disagreement on the majority’s opinion, he was expected to be disgraced and humiliated.

Formalized speech. The formalized language was commonly used during political speeches. The tendency when always used was that it became dry and often gave burden to the listeners leading to linguistic impoverishment. Worse, political speeches were often plagiarized.

Humorous speech. The Cultural Revolution also allowed Chinese not to take the current situation too seriously and instead make humorous sense of it. In a sense, it ironically tolerated the vice and evil of people.


Having discussed the historical background of Chinese communication in the Cultural Revolution, we now briefly discuss common issues relating to their communication mechanisms. There must be a clarification here with regard to the term “issue.” Issue on whose perspective? To the Chinese, these might not be issues, but to other cultures they are. For the purposes of this study, we put the issue perspective on the English communicators. In each subsequent topic, this will be explained more thoroughly especially the why’s and the how’s of Chinese communication.

A counterpart of the alphabet. The Chinese lacks the virtues found in the alphabet language despite being a preserved language tracing back to the ancient times. For the critics, the alphabet is simple, easy to memorize, and convenient to draw than the Chinese syllables.

Canonical word order. The Chinese has a unique way of arranging words and formulating sentences which when translated to a foreign language gives a different meaning. Unlike Chinese, the grammatical composition of English language is signaled by word order.

Vast number of dialects. The Chinese have many dialects across different regions. This is not surprising since they have an ancient civilization and the is the most populated country in the world. There are eight major dialects Chinese use which have a unified writing system; however, this becomes unintelligible when spoken by the different ethnicities (i.e. Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese). Some scholars consider these dialects as separate languages.

Complexity of Chinese calligraphy. Aside from the numerous Chinese characters one has to be familiar with, the writing of these scripts presents an equally big problem. In fact, their calligraphy is now being considered as a form of painting.


The Chinese culture has complex communication patterns. Facial expressions, movements of body parts, or even styles of dresses affect how Chinese communicate and how a person from other culture respond to them. For the White people, Chinese appear to be humble and reserved, so much concerned about their image that they tend to avoid in all possibilities the discomfort of being embarrassed or humiliated. For Chinese, indirectness allows them to save relationship as a concept of Confucius’ harmony. Harmony will be discussed more thoroughly in the preceding topics. To understand why Chinese behave and talk like this, it is important to understand the factors that affect how they communicate. The following are some of them:

Tonal language. Chinese has is its own syllabic structure and phonemics that differ from the other cultures’ language such that when they try to speak foreign language, say English, they would give a different tone or pronunciation. The most common is the word “fry” for “fly” where they substitute “l” for “r.”

Typological differences. China has their own way of organizing ideas, connecting facts, or even stressing points. Moreover, their language has no distinction between plural or singular forms. Thus, when translated to foreign language, they would appear absurd, blank, or unrelated.

Early education for children. Young Chinese are early nurtured to include others in their conversations by avoiding talking too much about themselves. In addition, they are taught to be cooperative and humble. In nursery schools, instead of requiring students to do recitals alone, teachers would make it a choral presentation. This attitude is expected to be brought into their adult lives.

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Fons Trompenaars, a famous cultural theorist, describes two kinds of communication patterns existing in diffused and specific cultures. People in diffused cultures allow others to relate his other areas of life. The topic is more diverse and less restricted than what the current relationship allows. For instance, an employer can talk about his private life to his employee in the same way as he can talk with him about his professional matters. On the other hand, people in specific cultures, restrict the conversation within the bounds of the existing relationship. In the previous example, the employer would not allow his employee to deal with his personal life since personal matters are different matters. The illustration below, according to Fons, illustrates the way people in diffused and specific cultures communicate.

The dots in the center of both pictures represent the issue or topic that a person tries to explain. The image on the right means that a when a person tries to explain something, he begins with the main issue and explains the matter direct to the point. This can be observed often in specific cultures. The image on the left means that when a person explains something, he goes around the bush first before arriving to his main point. This is common in diffused cultures. China belongs to the left image. The Chinese tries to be indirect in their conversation by making the conversation lengthy in order to build relationship. As for them, this is a good strategy to save face and avoid arrogance.


In comparing Chinese communication styles and English communication styles, most researchers fall on two dichotomies namely direct/linear style versus indirect/circular style and deductive versus inductive discourse patterns. These dichotomies help people understand the different communication patterns between English and Chinese in business negotiation, essay writing, and ordinary conversations. Kaplan’s (1966, 1972) contrastive rhetoric is the most famous work analysis used in distinguishing Chinese communication style and English communication style. Kaplan conducted a study of the 600 compositions of 600 students who were not native English speakers. The Chinese dominated the students’ number. The result was these dichotomies:

Direct/Linear versus Indirect/Circular Style. Kaplan proposed the “Oriental style writing” wherein before arriving to the main idea the writer goes first around circles. As opposed to American style of writing which states first the main idea, Kaplan described Chinese to start from the broader concept first before arriving to the specific topic. This study supports Trompenaars’ theory of diffused culture which states that Chinese tend to be indirect in answering or discussing a topic.

Oriental Style American Style

Deductive Reasoning versus Inductive Reasoning. Deductive reasoning is the process of arriving to a logical conclusion from a general statement. On the other hand, inductive reasoning is the process of arriving to a conclusion from specific set of facts. The distinguishing factor between the two is that in inductive reasoning, one cannot logically make a certain conclusion-only a well-founded or probable conclusion. When one delays the introduction of the topic, he is said to have an inductive pattern of reasoning, while when one introduces the topic early, he is said to have deductive reasoning. The Chinese people first establish a framework before introducing the main topic. Thus, between the two reasoning styles, Chinese have inductive reasoning communication style.


After presenting the styles, issues and factors affecting the Chinese communication, let us now apply such knowledge in dispute resolution among them or even in intercultural ones. The potential disagreement is huge when one is not aware of negotiation styles and barriers to a successful communication between parties having different cultural backgrounds. That is why here we first examine the factors that affect dispute resolution in China. Communication is greatly affected by these since these are the by-products of the Chinese culture (i.e. Confucian philosophy). The four major factors we need to examine are (1) harmony, (2) power, (3) relationship (guanxi), and (4) face (mianze). These factors can be used to establish a powerful framework of conflict management and resolution.

a. Harmony (He) – å’Œ. Among Chinese people, harmony is one of the most essential values which each one strives to have. Communication exists not to satisfy one’s needs but rather, to maintain harmonious relationship with his fellow being. In a harmonious community, people act interdependently by analyzing every action to be done so that in the end, no one will be prejudiced with it. If however, conflict is inevitable, the role of harmony is at least to reduce the negative effects of conflicts in the relationship of the parties or at least to save their faces.

b. Power (Lìliàng) – 力. The second factor is power which refers to how one party controls his resources, whether it be tangible or intangible. In the Chinese context, power determines the degree of one’s inclination or cooperation to the other’s influence. Power in addition, may be equated to authority and seniority. Oftentimes, persons in authority are respected; and it is there advice that people obey since they are believed to be more knowledgeable and familiar in the field of dispute resolution. In addition, seniority gives the people the credibility and experiences which the young Chinese deeply value.

c. Relationship (Guanxi) -关系. The third factor is the guanxi, which refers to the relationship existing between parties. In Confucius’ book of “Five Code of Ethics,” he specified different relationships a man has, which include the ruler and his subject, husband and wife, father and son, older brother and younger brother, and between friends. These relationships vary in degree, and thus have specific communication styles that one has to follow in order to avoid future conflicts. One needs to adjust his verbal and nonverbal ways of communication to show respect and regard for the position, power or authority of the person he is dealing with. For instance, a subject cannot be expected to disobey his ruler implying that a high degree of respect is demanded; else, he gets an equivalent punishment. In the case of husband and wife, the communication is more intimate and reciprocal. Friends tend to treat each other equally and less formally.

d. Face (Mianze) – 面子. Mianze refers to one’s social status in life as perceived by other people based on one’s position and prestige. Through hard work, a person achieves a high position in the society and in return, gains the respect and appreciation of the watching public. instance, in libel cases, there is a public imputation of wrong to a particular person, thus, the latter loses the product of his hard work and would find it difficult to regain the previous position in life. Without minding the image of the other, a serious conflict would likely result.

Applying the inductive/deductive reasoning styles, the Chinese in dispute resolution appear to have an inductive reasoning. In a study regarding conflict styles, Chinese appeared to be less direct, less assertive, and less aggressive during confrontational situations. Answers to questions did not have direct relation or loosely connected to the questions asked. Further, background information comes first before information. The use of indirectness is a means of balancing harmony since in the process of avoiding direct answers, one establishes relationship with the other and avoids losing a face.


Languages have a dual function. The first is the transfer of information and the second the management of social relations. Helen Oatey in her book “Culturally Speaking,” uses the term “rapport management” to describe management of social relations as an aspect of language since the term is broad enough to cover the concept of maintaining or threatening social relationships. Taking into consideration these domains when dealing with Chinese, would be a huge step in avoiding conflicts. The following according to Oatey, play an important role in the management of rapport when interacting with Chinese:

Illocutionary Domain. This domain concerns about the speeches such as apologies, compliments, or requests that potentially puts at risk the rapports of individuals. For instance, when someone asks “Did you put sugar on this coffee?” the implication is that you want sugar.

Discourse Domain. This domain concerns the content and structure of the communication such as the decision whether to include private topics or whether a particular topic should be discussed first. This domain should be taken care of because there is a tendency to raise sensitive issues and put lesser priorities on more important matters which would threaten one’s rapport.

Participation domain. This domain concerns the technicalities of the interchange like turn-taking, the decision whether a third person can be allowed to join the conversation between two people, and the permission from the party to the conversation whether someone will be allowed to ask questions or not. This domain should be guarded in order for a harmonious relation to exist.

Stylistic Domain. This domain concerns the tone of interaction such as the choice of informal words, polite expressions, greetings, or jokes.

Non-verbal Domain. This domain concerns the actions governing the interchange such as eye contact, facial expressions, and proxemics. In the same way as the above four, this domain needs to be guarded if harmonious relation is wanting.


In trying to adapt to a more interrelated world, it is important to know how the Chinese think and communicate. The language style may seem to be complicated, yet for the Chinese, regard for others is the key to choosing the correct style of communication. Communication for them is more than exchange of words. It is a conduit to building a relationship and establishing harmony in the community.


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