#218      17 min 14 sec
When silence is golden: What is said and left unsaid between friends in China and Taiwan

Assoc Prof Sun Shaojing discusses how the cultural and political context shapes interpersonal communication in China and Taiwan. Shaojing also gets up close to Chinese and Taiwanese societies through the linguistic lens of topic avoidance.

"The older generation, they are more familiar with the Chinese traditional values, norms and the rules. So if a particular topic that is closely related to traditional Chinese and values then the older generation will be more cautious in their communication process." -- Assoc Prof Sun Shaojing




Assoc Prof Sun Shaojing
Assoc Prof Sun Shaojing

Sun Shaojing is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism, Fudan University, Shanghai, P.R. China. His research interests include mediated communication, health communication, and intergroup communication, with a particular focus on the Chinese context. His research has been widely published on various refreed journals, across communication, psychology and other social science outlets. His recent research on media and aging has also won an award from the National Communication Association in the U.S.A.

孙少晶,先后在美国获得传播学博士和应用统计方法博士,2008年回国在复旦大学新闻学院从事教学科研工作。主要研究方向为:媒介研究、健康风险传播、新媒体、中国问题。过去几年曾经在传播学、心理学、研究方法等英文国际期刊发表论文多篇。

Books

Under Control or Out of Control?: Rethinking the Human-Internet Relationship, VDM Verlag, 2009.

Testing Latent Variable Interaction Effect: dealing with data nonnormality and model misspecification, VDM Verlag, 2009.

Credits

Presenter: Jennifer Martin
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis pod cast from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
I’m Jennifer Martin.  Thanks for joining us.  There is no single word in Chinese that is a direct translation for communication. Goutong 沟通 or the ability to connect among people is closest Chinese equivalent and this word tellingly describes a process not a single act. Goutong 沟通 is dynamic, shifting, ever changing. So how does conversation, communication and the exchange of meaning differ in China to the rest of the world and their closest neighbours such as Taiwan?  What isn’t talked about and who isn’t it talked about with? Today’s guest, Sun Shaojing is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism at Fudan University, China.  On this episode of Up Close he will discuss his research and how the Chinese communicate and what this can tell us about the world’s fastest growing major economy.Shaojing, thank you for joining us.

SUN SHAOJING 
My pleasure to be here.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Look, let’s begin by defining what it is we mean about the study of communication.  What is the goal of communication?  

SUN SHAOJING 
In my view, communication is really a very complicated process and the goal - the primary goal of a communication process is to negotiate meaning and try to reach a common ground and reach mutual understanding between the communicators.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Now, Shaojing, you say the academic study of communication has been quite Eurocentric.  What ramifications does this bias have for your analysis?  
SUN SHAOJING 
Yeah, in some sense you can argue that communication is more Eurocentric and it does pose a challenge for communication research in the Chinese context.  That said, we cannot just borrow everything from the academic research from the west.  Rather we also need to try to dig out some indigenous and more local meanings from the communication processes in the Chinese context. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Which is what you have done with your research. So, what can you tell us about the rules and the norms that guide Chinese communication?

SUN SHAOJING 
Talking about rules and norms, I would say that there are so many rules and norms that guide Chinese communicators in their daily communication process.  There are some traditional rules.  There are also some new rules.  For instance, to many people it is well known that a phrase keqi 客气 or mianzi 面子 such kind of rules have been there for a long time.  For a long time Chinese communicators whenever they communicated they are really concerned about how to save the other person’s face and how to maintain the better relationship.When we talk about a relationship in Chinese we have another word.  We call it guanxi 关系 but guanxi 关系 is not exactly the same as a relationship.  It has some special Chinese meaning there. There's some nuance, very subtle meaning - you know, very subtle meaning there so we need to differentiate that.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
That is so fascinating, so you’re saying there’s this wide range of rules and norms and you’ve said in your writing that some are dominant, some are weak and they’re changing, aren’t they?  

SUN SHAOJING 
Right, exactly and they are changing particularly when we talk about the rules and the norms we have to take into account of the rapid changes over the whole Chinese society and that said, particularly after Chinese open its door to the west some values really are not as strong as before but some new values and some new values emerged, some new norms emerged.  For instance, for a long time many people may think that, okay, Chinese society as a whole may be collectivistic but that is not true. Any the younger generation is also in some aspect, in some sense, are becoming more individualistic. And some norms that guided their communication could be more west-oriented and may share some similarity with westerners.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Now, you have said in your writings that the core of understanding Chinese communication is the self and crucially notions of identity which strikes to what you’ve just said there.  Could you expand on that for us?

SUN SHAOJING 
Identity is really a very sophisticated issue in the Chinese context.  When we talk about identity we really need to understand that identity is a multilayered and cubic sophisticated entity and often times that when we talk about identity it could be a combination of different types of identities.  For instance, collective identity and the personal identity and also it could be related to individuals’ careers, occupations and religious beliefs and all of those could play some kind of impact on individual identity that is why those identities could differ or could vary across even within the Chinese - the large Chinese context.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So, just how helpful is it then?  It doesn’t sound like it’s very helpful at all, to view the Chinese as having a collective consciousness when it comes to conversation.  Does that help us at all?

SUN SHAOJING 
Yeah, I think that it depends on what kind of a topic, you know, you are going to talk about and on some particular topics collective consciousness could make a difference or could play a role particularly when the topic is related to, I would say related to politics or related to some, you know, the social system.  For those particular topics, collective consciousness could come to play but other topics, if those topics are more self-orientated maybe in this case collective consciousness, its impact may be not that strong but other kinds of factors might come in to play some sort of impact.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
This is Up Close.  I’m Jennifer Martin and our guest today is Sun Shaojing from Fudan University in China.  Shaojing, I’m fascinated with the way you’ve done your research into what the Chinese people communicate with and how.  Could you take some time just to explain your methodology to us?

SUN SHAOJING 
Over the past years I have taken a wide range of different approaches to communication research. And primarily I rely on survey research, experiments, content analysis, in-depth interviews. And often times that I combine these different methodologies to study different communication topics.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So, what have your findings revealed when you’ve taken this multilayered approach?

SUN SHAOJING 
When you use these multiple approaches at the same time the results could be really enlightening - could be more enlightening and could be more stimulating and more helpful for us to understand some sophisticated issues.  For instance, when I rely on survey research that would be very helpful for me to explore a wide range or a broader scope of different topics or reasons pertaining to communication processes.  When I use in-depth interviews that can help me to tease out the deeper meanings of individual communicators’ communication episodes.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
That would apply to the research you’ve done with college students in China looking at their relationships with friends and different kinds of friendships and what they do or don’t say?

SUN SHAOJING 
Yeah, right. And over the past years with my collaborators I did some research on friendships and particularly the topic avoidance in their daily conversations with their friends and significant others.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So talk to me a little bit about that.  What are they avoiding topic-wise with each other and who are they avoiding it with?

SUN SHAOJING 
We studied the topic avoidance issue for a long time.  We found out that Chinese communicators avoid a wide range of topics under different circumstances.  For instance, some topics related to sex or taboo or their previous romantic relationships and such kind of topics could be often avoided in their daily conversations with their friends or significant others.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
You did make a comment in the research that was borne out that often the Chinese college students would know more about their western friends’ personal life than they would about a Chinese friend.

SUN SHAOJING 
That’s really a very interesting question.  I think that is not only related to topic avoidance, it’s also related to personal self-disclosure.  We say that maybe on that particular comment, westerners tended to disclose more information as opposed to Chinese communicators.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So Shaojing, you’ve also done research into the ways in which the Taiwanese and the Chinese communicate.  What I’m interested in is just how much of these differences can be explained by the political climate?

SUN SHAOJING 
Politics explains most of the difference of topic avoidance between the two different contexts.  I think the main reason really results from the different roles that politics plays in the two different contexts.  In Taiwan, according to our research, politics already penetrated almost every layer of their daily lives.  For instance, I have some friends who came from Taiwan, they told me that often times when they are dining with their family members or close friends they avoid talking about politics particularly during the time before the presidential election.  In Taiwan there are two major camps of politics, one is blue camp, the other is green camp, and the conflict between these two camps is really very intense.  Therefore people who hold different political beliefs if they are not very cautious about this, very likely some conflicts might result. So in their daily conversations they are very concerned about maintaining their relationships.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Now, indeed, you collected your data just before the Taiwanese presidential election, so how do you think this context affected your results?

SUN SHAOJING 
The data for that particular research were collected around December of 2007 and January of 2008 so really that is only a couple of months before the presidential election. So that is why that during that period of time the Taiwanese people are very concerned about the on-goings of the political campaigns and the presidential election.  So maybe that is also why that our participants from Taiwan were very cautious - were very careful in terms of avoiding topics relating to politics.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
You’re listening to Up Close.  I’m Jennifer Martin.  We’re talking with Sun Shaojing from Fudan University, China about interpersonal communication in China and Taiwan.  Shaojing, could you just give us a bit of a portrait, a snapshot, of the different cultures of China and Taiwan?

SUN SHAOJING 
First, I would say that the mainland Chinese culture is really like a very sophisticated entity and because mainland China is just so large, so talking about the culture, it's not that homogeneous and there is quite some variances across different regions.  But in Taiwan because its size is relatively small so that said, that Taiwan culture, I would say that it is more - maybe is more homogeneous in that aspect but also I would say that, in terms of economy, Taiwan is more developed.  So that said, that western culture does share more similarities with the Taiwan culture but in mainland China the regional differences could be huge.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So I think that’s so important for us to remember is that we can’t just overlay an idea of what Chinese communication is across the whole society. And with that in mind, Shaojing, could you just drill down for us now on the characteristics of Chinese communication and let’s begin with the distinction, the obvious one, between verbal and non-verbal?

SUN SHAOJING 
Verbal and non-verbal communication is just one perspective to classify communication. And verbal communication could be more prominent in certain contexts.  Non-verbal communication could be not that obvious but its impact could be huge.  When it comes to the communication process, often times communicators would subconsciously or unconsciously take note of the other person’s non‑verbal communication. Whenever there is any conflict or inconsistency between the verbal communication and the non-verbal communication that it could hurt the credibility of a particular communicator.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So this becomes crucial in negotiations.  Can you give us some examples?
SUN SHAOJING 
Yes, I can give you some examples.  Think about this, if I say that I really love your research but at the same time on my face I reveal a very weird or a kind of hard to understand smile, then as another communicator you might wonder whether I am telling you the truth.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
And that brings me to the differences between Chinese and English relationships.  Now, you’ve done some study into this as well.  What have your findings revealed there?

SUN SHAOJING 
When we compare Chinese communication with English communication, I would say that English communication really encourages verbal communication more as compared to, maybe, Chinese communication.  In Chinese communications, we really - in some particular cases we’re encouraged to be implicit, not to be that aggressive or to be a little bit reserved.  In that case, some meaning could be more effectively conveyed via non-verbal communication. So therefore I would say that in the Chinese context non-verbal communication, maybe, plays a more important role in this process.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So, Shaojing, is this changing in the face of rapid developments in technology and also shifts in economy?

SUN SHAOJING 
Yes, I would say that definitely it is.  With rapid diffusion and the penetration of new technologies we can see that technologies are exercising a huge impact on human communication.  Think about this, sometimes the same person could behave quite differently as compared to a face‑to‑face communication context.  So when I talk with another person on the phone, on the internet or on Skype the cues - or we would say that the verbal cues, some verbal cues could be filtered out.  So therefore that could influence the result or the outcome of the communication process.  But in face‑to‑face communication, each communicator could be aware of every information cue from his partner. Therefore the information that is conveyed throughout this communication process could be very rich, and that can pose great challenges to the communication result too because whenever there is some wrong information that is conveyed out or any information that is misperceived, misunderstood, that could botch the communication process.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Now Shaojing, we mentioned earlier - we were talking about your research sample that was drawn from college students.  Now, I’m interested to compare their attitude towards topic avoidance and taboo subjects to people of different generations.  What about older generations?

SUN SHAOJING 
In China, particularly over the past several decades, the differences across different generations have become more and more pronounced. And the younger generation typically are more well educated, they are more familiar with the western culture. Therefore I would say that the topics that they tended to avoid appear to be different if we compare then with the older generation.  The older generation, they are more familiar with the Chinese traditional values, norms and the rules. So if a particular topic that is closely related to traditional Chinese and values then the older generation will be more cautious in their communication process.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Shaojing, thank you so much for your time today.  

SUN SHAOJING 
My pleasure.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
You’ve been listening to Up Close and we’ve been speaking with Sun Shaojing from Fudan University, China, about interpersonal communication in China and Taiwan.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Russel Evans.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I’m Jennifer Martin.  Until next time, good-bye.  

VOICEOVER 
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au, Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


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