Communication in its simplest form refers to the ongoing process of sharing and understanding meaning. Many intercultural communication problems stem from the different ways that messages are composed, transmitted, and interpreted. Human beings depend on a variety of philosophical, social, psychological, and institutional standards or criteria of conduct to arrive at reasonable, appropriate, and meaningful modes of communication. Asia is very heterogeneous. Each Asian culture has its unique philosophical traditions, ethics, and morals for appropriate social behaviors and conduct. Confucianism, however, is one of the most prevalent practices in Asian cultures. Although communication is unique within each Asian culture, systematic similarities in communication (e.g., indirect, implicit, polite, and formal communication) have been observed across the Asian cultures (Gao et al. 1996).
Human communication modes can be understood from multiple perspectives. The purpose of this article is to explore the phenomenon by examining the current literature from Asian perspectives. Specifically, this article discusses certain Asian communication modes, their fundamental core concepts, and the overarching philosophical frameworks of Asian cultures.
Core Principles In Confucianism: Harmony And Hierarchy
Asian society has been strongly influenced by an ancient Chinese sage, Confucius, who lived approximately 2,500 years ago, before the Greek philosopher Socrates. Confucianism encompasses sets of principles and rules regulating social behaviors and relationships, among them ren (humanism), yi (righteousness), li (courtesy), and shu (forgiveness), which are emphasized in dealing with the five cardinal relationships (father and son, emperor and minister, husband and wife, between brothers, and between friends) (Gabrenya & Hwang 1996).
Confucius proposed that things and persons be regarded as belonging to prescribed power hierarchies with responsibilities so that individuals could relate to one another in a supportive and harmonious manner. Confucianism was developed in a time of chaos in China. In the development of human civilization, its influence spread to neighboring countries and elsewhere in Asia. The effort to promote Confucian values in Asian societies is evident in media representations, school teaching, and government policies. In particular, some of the main Confucian values, such as interpersonal harmony, relational hierarchy, and traditional conservatism, are considered as essentially Asian, because they are generally emphasized more in the east than in other parts of the world. Hence, many scholars have identified Asian societies as collectivistic, rooted in Confucianism (e.g., Hofstede 2001).
Indirect And Implicit Communication
As one of the classical writers on communication and culture, Hall (1976) differentiated cultures on a continuum based on how much information is communicated and/or implied by the communication context per se, regardless of the specific words that are spoken. In Hall’s view, on the high end of the continuum are high-context cultures where contextual messages other than the explicit verbal codes are emphasized. Not surprisingly, high-context messages can be implicit, ambiguous, and indirect. On the lower end of the continuum he locates low-context cultures where explicit and direct verbal codes are emphasized. High-context communication might involve managing strategic ambiguity, and sometimes “beating around the bush,” thus seemingly little intended meaning is provided in the explicit verbal form. Grice’s (1975) conversation maxims illustrate the ideal conversation styles preferred in low-context cultures, calling on communicators to give sufficient and relevant information and evidence in conversations and to avoid ambiguity, excessive verbosity, disorganization, and obscure expressions.
In line with the broader descriptions of Hall’s high-context cultural traits where the contextual cues and nonverbal communication are emphasized more than the sheer verbal codes, indirect/implicit communication illustrates how communication is carried out in Asian cultures. By its discursive expression, indirect communication refers to a communicative practice that is shared in many Asian cultures where communicators express meaning (especially the intended meaning) by using implicit, sometimes ambiguous, and unassertive messages. For example, in the Chinese cultural context, indirect/implicit communication is most exercised in the expression of feelings and emotions, in initial encounters, in public settings, when imposing on others, in situations where the other peron’s face or image needs to be protected, in self-enhancing situations, and when dealing with sensitive people and topics (Gao 2006). Assertive verbal skills in public speaking and debate are promoted and evaluated positively in western societies, such as the United States; but in Asian societies those who are perceived to have a “sharp tongue” are viewed more negatively and considered to cause trouble, be disruptive and self-centered, and to have less knowledge than those who are relatively reticent. In other words, taciturnity is encouraged. When verbal messages are necessary, they are usually strategically managed and unassertively presented, especially in expressing discontentment, in order to avoid the escalation of conflict.
Confucian tradition encourages individuals to conduct “mind to mind” communication (Tsujimura 1987), involving the communication of meanings through physical setting, context, the relational and psychological temperaments of the communicators, shared beliefs, values, and norms. Phrases like ishin-denshinin in the Japanese culture, i-shim jun-sim in the Korean culture, and hanxu in the Chinese culture all demonstrate the importance of nonverbal communication and strategic ambiguity (Gao et al. 1996; Tsujimura 1987; Yum 1987). Consistent with this perspective, previous cross-cultural studies examining assertiveness and argumentativeness have revealed that Asians are less assertive than westerners (Kim 2002). To a large degree, indirect communication aims to promote and cultivate modesty, humility, and harmonious relations with others. In addition, certain external variables have contributed to the practice of indirect communication. Tsujimura (1987) argues that linguistic and ethnic homogeneity enables people in Asian cultures to understand the unspoken subtleties and understatements of a message, presumed to be part of the normative repertoire of social knowledge. On the other hand, cultural and linguistic diversity in the United States would make indirect communication inefficient and problematic.
A recent discussion in an American college classroom about a dialogue between an American student and a Malaysian student who was indirectly asking for a favor revealed several critical points. Some American students read the dialogue several times and still did not know exactly what the Malaysian student was asking for. Those who understood the request perceived the Malaysian student to be sneaky and manipulative. Some thought that the Malaysian student had a problem with language proficiency. Two Asian students in the classroom were frustrated with the American students’ lack of sensitivity in reading between the lines. This example demonstrates how frustrating the use of an indirect communication style in intercultural communication between those from Asia and those from western societies can be for both parties.
Polite And Formal Communication
Cultural systems mold individuals’ communication behaviors by influencing individuals’ self-construal (Kim 2002). Asian communication is very affectively based, other-centered, and ingroup-oriented. Unlike western societies where the independent self (i.e., where individuals are viewed as autonomous beings with unique personalities, emotions, and motivations) is most valued, in Asian societies the interdependent self (i.e., where individuals are regarded as connected by multiple relationships with others) is most emphasized. Self in Asian cultures is defined by a person’s surrounding relations, derived from kinship networks. An Asian person’s self-concept and self-esteem are dependent on how he or she is considered or perceived by others. To have a positive sense of self is to be able to relate to others in ways that are sensitive to cultural values (e.g., filial piety), norms, and role expectations. Westernself-esteem also depends on how one is considered by others, but the emotional attachment of Asians to the concept of others is far stronger than that of westerners.
In Asian societies, maintaining good relations with others, being able to work in a team, and having a supportive social network project a positive self-image of a person as amicable, likeable, and capable. The cultivation of such social relationships involves behaving with politeness and formality to others, including supporting their “face” by abiding by the spoken and unspoken social rules and norms. Using formal and appropriate forms of address; praising others; being friendly, patient, and respectful; knowing one’s limit; expressing concern; showing care, warmth, and gratitude; and displaying modesty and humility are all specific examples of politeness. In general, an Asian communicator uses a great deal of sensitivity to protect the other party’s positive image or “face” in the communication process. Hence, from early childhood, individuals in Asian societies are educated to respect established relational and social hierarchies and to show an abundance of consideration to others.
As hierarchy permeates every corner of Asian societies, Asian communication is characterized by its politeness and formality. Coming from an Asian cultural background and teaching in the United States, the present author finds that the different levels of politeness and formality extended by students in their emails illustrate these cultural disparities. A typical email from an Asian international student who is interested in enrolling in a class that is full will start with a very formal address (e.g., Dear Professor/ Dr.), followed by a well-structured self-introduction and reasons for the request. Such requests are always signed off “Sincerely” or “Yours truly.” A typical email from an American student will be very informal, frequently without any form of address and often with no name at the end of the message.
In explanations of the motivational forces of Asian communication styles, using Hall’s theoretical framework of high-context and low-context communication, Confucianism has always been observed to be the overarching philosophical frame while collectivism and high power distance are cited as the shared Asian cultural traits (Hofstede 2001). Cultural level analysis (e.g., accounts of Asian communication styles tend to paint all Asians with the same broad brush as collectivistic and thus reserved, indirect) has enhanced our understanding of Asian communication styles and their motivational forces. However, recent research using individual level analysis calls attention to the complexity and increasing heterogeneity of Asian communication styles and takes into account the impacts of cultural change, especially within younger, more educated, and urban segments of Asian societies (e.g., Zhang et al. 2005).
- Gabrenya, W. K., & Hwang, K.-K. (1996). Chinese social interaction: Harmony and hierarchy on the good earth. In M. H. Bond (ed.), The handbook of Chinese psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 309 –321.
- Gao, G. (2006). Core concepts and organizing principles of Chinese communication and identity. China Media Research, 2, 1–14.
- Gao, G., Ting-Toomey, S., & Gudykunst, W. B. (1996). Chinese communication processes. In M. H. Bond (ed.), The handbook of Chinese psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 280–293.
- Grice, H. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and semantics. New York: Academic Press.
- Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor.
- Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Kim, M. S. (2002). Non-western perspectives on human communication: Implications for theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Tsujimura, A. (1987). Some characteristics of the Japanese way of communication. In D. L. Kincaid (ed.), Communication theory: Eastern and western perspectives. Boston, MA: Academic Press, pp. 115 –136.
- Yum, J. O. (1987). Korean philosophy and communication. In D. L. Kincaid (ed.), Communication theory: Eastern and western perspectives. Boston, MA: Academic Press, pp. 71– 86.
- Zhang, Y. B., Harwood, J., & Hummert, M. L. (2005). Perceptions of conflict management styles in Chinese intergenerational dyads. Communication Monographs, 72, 71–91.