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Face Systems and Self Concept in Cross Cultural Communications

The "concept of self" is the source for many misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication. How an individual defines themselves in relation to their environment, and in particular where an individual divides the self from the other varies considerably across human cultures. In their work on Western-Asian professional communication Intercultural Communication Scollon and Scollon use the work of Francis Hsu to illustrate this difference with diagrams which emphasize that Westerners and Asians draw this line in distinctly different places.

In the Western tradition, and particularly in the USA, an individual human being is the defined smallest unit of society, the self. Education, acculturation, morals, and ethics are all defined along the actions of individuals and their consequences to those individuals. Only after this are the consequences to family, social groups, and larger cultural constructs considered. In contrast, Asian cultures defines the extended family as the discrete unit of self. Actions are evaluated by their effect on the family and even the nation, and less weight is put on the consequence to individuals. It is noteworthy that to a Westerner (again, particularly those in the USA) the family is defined strictly as the parents and unmarried children, with the extended family (parents' siblings, married children, children's children) living in another place, perhaps some great distance away. In traditional Asian (eg Chinese, Indian) culture, the extended family dwells together. Another important detail is that traditional Asian cultures include their elders and ancestors, including the dead, in their family.

Face systems reflect these differences. The "face" that is presented, and that may suffer injury is defined primarily by the self. Thus a slight to a Westerner is taken personally, but a slight to an Asian may indeed implicate their whole family, living and dead. Of course the various cultures have different rules about what is acceptable behavior, and the difference in self and face allow for the degree of the insult to be misunderstood.

The commonly observed American practice of pushing to first-name or other informal forms of address demonstrates the difficulty these differences can cause. The American is working from a personal self, and assumes the Asian is as well (the common human fallacy of believing others to be like us). The American is trying to relate his individual self to the Asians, as is sensible to his culture, but the Asian self is the family (which is defined hierarchically) and so even an Asian aware of the Western custom may react poorly when addressed by a name only his closest family members might use. Scollon and Scollon present an example of this to begin their seventh chapter as a dialog between Mr Richardson and Mr Chu.

Such a huge difference in fundamental concepts is not an easy thing to overcome. In the case of Mr Richardson and Mr Hsu, it seems that a solution specific to the problem would be intricate, particularly since both parties were indeed trying to allow for cultural differences. These difficulties can be eased by both parties being more flexible in their reactions and by encouraging the parties to communicate more. The percieved impoliteness of pointing out another's mistake must be weighed against the magnitude of understanding. If Mr Richardson was more adaptable to the situation he would have used the name Mr Chu gave in introduction. In contrast, if Mr Hu had politely corrected Mr Richardson when he used the wrong name, the trouble could have been avoided. Either the more refined "Please call me David, Andy." or the more jovial "Only my mother calls me that." would have served to correct Mr Richardson without significant loss of face for either party.

Scollon and Scollon. Intercultural Communications. Blackwell Publishers: Padstow, 2001. 2nd ed. ISBN 9-780631-224181

also of interest:
Tong, William. Excerpts from "Americans & Chinese: Passages To Differences" 3rd Edition, by Francis L.K. Hsu. WWW: Retrieved 15:00 UTC 11 June 2004. (link)

Heine, Stephen. "Making Sense of East Asian Self-Enhancement". WWW via Retrieved 1600 UTC 11 June 2004. unpublished, submitted to Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. (link)

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