Culture directly affects the way individuals communicate with each other. When you cross the divide between east and west, you’ll surely notice a difference in communication. In eastern cultures, where collectivism reigns, you will meet with nonverbal and indirect communication, which can sometimes be frustrating for westerners. On the flipside, eastern cultures might be affronted by individualistic western culture, which breeds a more direct and concrete line of communication. We will examine how the perception of saving face, social power and direct versus indirect communication diverges between eastern and western cultures.
Saving face is not unique to any culture; preserving one’s image is universal and humanly ingrained. However, the east and the west view “face” differently, thus they go about saving face in a different manner. In the west, one must first make a face for oneself, and a person does so by setting him/herself apart from the pack, whether through personal achievement, status, wealth, etc. Once face is made, maintaining it might involve remaining relevant or unique, which often lies in asserting individual opinion and doing so vocally. Saving face in an eastern collectivist society is quite the opposite. One does not wish to stand out, be aggressive or assert opinion, as this, on the contrary, often damages face. Instead, eastern culture promotes group harmony, avoiding conflict at all costs. If a person loses face in an eastern culture, it’s nearly impossible to get it back.
The egalitarian culture of the west versus the hierarchy in eastern cultures creates a chasm where social power is concerned. Again, this has much to do with saving face. In a western company, to assert oneself as a new employee shows ambition, which is considered a good character trait by western standards. However, if a new or younger employee in an eastern company was to come across as outspoken or ambitious, he/she would appear disobedient and even, perhaps, disloyal to upper management and, thus, would lose face. This is due to the concentration of power being much more top-heavy in eastern cultures.
These disparities between the east and the west create great differences in communication, the east being nonverbal and indirect, and the west being direct and concrete. A western person will not often speak in riddles of which the listener must guess the meaning. Instead, a westerner speaks exactly what he means, and this directness can often be perceived by the east as ill-mannered. Honesty, openness and pointed speech are the keystones of western communication. In the east, the meaning of the spoken word might be in direct contrast with a person’s actions. Meaning is fudged in communication, so as to preserve the relationship. Being direct – for instance, giving someone a direct “no” – is seen as harsh; hence, speaking so directly would lose one face.
Eastern and western cultures’ views on the perception of saving face, social power and directness versus indirectness create this divergence in communication. However, it is important to note that differences do not mean it’s impossible for two different cultures to communicate. Though it may be more difficult, a simple adjustment of cultural sensitivity will make conversation run smooth.