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Interpersonal communication struggles to gain footing

HU CHUNYANG | 2017-08-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


The social transformation of modern China has greatly changed Chinese interpersonal relationships, which poses new challenges for communication studies.

The sub-discipline of interpersonal communication has lagged behind the general progress made in China’s communication studies over the past three decades. The main reason is that there is interference and confusion caused by various misunderstandings. Identifying and eliminating these misunderstandings will promote communication studies in China.


Cultural-psychological factors
According to the Confucian theory of the Five Cardinal Relationships, Chinese people establish and maintain all their social relationships on the basis of five types of relationship—ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, sibling love and friendships. All other relationships are merely the simulation or extension of relationships of blood and marriage.

Based on the Five Cardinal Relationships, the relationship network that binds everyone has been established and passed down over generations. In this way, Chinese people establish a complex and stable network of interpersonal relationships.

The establishment, maintenance and operation of these immense networks of relationships depend not on communication skill, but rather on moral obligation, life wisdom and intuition. The core principles for managing all social relationships, including interpersonal relationships, are the principles of ren, or “humaneness,” and li, or “norms,” which guide human interaction.

Ren in practice is the principle “Don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you.” This inversion of the Golden Rule is not an action of skills but rather contains an intrinsic moral standard: being a man of integrity is the prerequisite for properly interacting with others. Without moral norms, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you would harm others as well as impair one’s kindheartedness.

The core of li is an ethical code for handling relationships. When asked what is essential to consider when governing a state, Confucius said, “Let the king be a king, the subject be a subject. Let the father be a father, the son be a son.” When one’s position and title in a relationship is defined and legitimate, their words and actions will no doubt be proper and just. Every title and role in a relationship bears a certain responsibility. If everyone follows their roles, there will be no trespassing. In this way, interpersonal relationships are made harmonious.

In addition to the teachings of the sages, Chinese culture has a lot of daily instructions for maintaining interpersonal relationships. For example, there are instructions including “Be a man of principle and deal with matters in a flexible way” and “Do not reveal your personality easily.” All these are not goals that can be achieved through verbal or non-verbal skills but rather require life wisdom if one tries to grasp them.

Hence, Chinese people establish and maintain interpersonal relationships by taking individual moral practice as a starting point and the degree of intimacy in a relationship as the fundamental principle. As we can see, Chinese interpersonal relationships have little to do with communication capacity or skill.

Despite the fact that Chinese culture also stresses being proper when speaking, it is a balance of the relative advantages and disadvantages based on relationship and position of the speakers rather than external skills or knowledge learned from books. For this reason, the discipline of interpersonal relations or communication seems to be unnecessary because Chinese people are believed to be innate experts on interpersonal relationships. This belief, to some extent, obstructs the development of interpersonal communication as a discipline.

On the other hand, Chinese culture minimizes the significance of “speaking.” Confucius said: “A gentleman cultivates a reputation of being slow in word but prompt in deed.”

The teachings of the sages, to some extent, despise clever rhetoric. Chinese proverbs decry “having a glib tongue” or “clever talk and an ingratiating manner.” From this perspective, the discipline of interpersonal communication is seen as an insignificant set of skills that will confuse and corrupt the minds of the people and disrupt the world.

According to Confucian teachings, harmony is prized in ritual. Chinese interpersonal relationships show the soft side of valuing human relationships, blood ties and ties to people from one’s hometown.

The opposite extreme also develops from this philosophy of interpersonal relationships in Chinese culture. Harmony on the surface coexists with secret struggle and infighting. The smooth and evasive way of “observing attitudes and evading conflicts” in Chinese officialdom probably also originates from this culture of “harmony.” In addition, the large numbers of books on tackling interpersonal relationships in a calculating way also contribute to the public’s general loathing of the philistine and hypocritical interpersonal relationships, which ultimately obstructs the development of interpersonal communication studies in China.


Pressure of other disciplines
The discipline of interpersonal communication has faced as many controversies as the discipline of communication itself. Scholars of sociology criticize interpersonal communication for simply applying the theories of Western behavioral sciences and psychology, which are ill-equipped to explain Chinese practices of interpersonal relationships.

Chinese sociology has a longer history of applying Western theories. But in terms of localization, a Chinese theory of interpersonal communication should differ greatly from sociology’s basic explanatory framework, i.e. China is a relationship based society with human relationships at the foundation. Otherwise, Chinese interpersonal communication will be a superfluous discipline. Sadly, some scholars of communication also downplay the discipline as insignificant as they are unable to propose novel theories.

This misunderstanding and arrogance originates from an ignorance of interpersonal communication’s scope of knowledge, which is fundamentally different from interpersonal interaction and social exchange, despite significant connections.

Interpersonal relationships in the field of interpersonal communication refers to daily personal relationships while interpersonal relationships in Chinese sociology refers, strictly speaking, to social relationships in a broader domain.

In addition, the concept of a relationship has undergone a cultural transformation in the pan-relationship society of China. The Chinese words interpersonal “guanxi” have a far more complicated meaning than the literal translation interpersonal “relationship” in the English language. The explanatory framework of a “system of human relationships” cannot replace studies on personal relations. However perfectly it can describe the phenomena of human relations, face and power operation, it cannot explain the mechanisms nor the motivations behind the establishment, development and maintenance of relationships.

The explanatory framework, which treats the system of human relationships as the basis for interpersonal relationship practices does not absorb the idea of communication. The establishment and maintenance of personal relationships among Chinese people—with intimate relationships as the most significant form—have greatly changed, especially as China transitions from a traditional society to a modern one. Chinese interpersonal relationships have transformed from interactions that abide by the ethical code of conforming to one’s role into interactions that emphasize equal dialogue.

Supra-interpersonal communication in the internet age also transforms face-to-face communication into interpersonal communication on internet platforms, which broadens the research field of interpersonal communication. How can local Chinese concepts, such as face, explain these new phenomena? In this sense, it is necessary to explore the core knowledge of universal interpersonal communication.


Core issues
Theoretically speaking, interpersonal communication focuses on studying the process of interpersonal communication and the motivation for developing interpersonal relationships.

This discipline studies the general process of interpersonal communication. For example, how will cognition structure as well as verbal and non-verbal behaviors affect interpersonal interaction and communication? How will the confluence of such factors as demographic, cognitive, social and individual environments affect the quality of the interpersonal communication?

The concrete process of interpersonal communication is also the topic of the discipline. For example, how will social networks as well as emotional experience and expression affect interpersonal communication? How can we avoid destructive arguments and offer constructive criticism?

This discipline also studies the ability to conduct interpersonal communication in various contexts, including romantic relationships, dialogue between spouses, and parent-child communication as well as in the workplace. In addition, communications among intercultural communicators and between doctors and patients are also important subjects for studies of interpersonal communication.

In practice, the discipline of interpersonal communication aims to provide people with skills that enable them to communicate with others more effectively in various social identities, enhancing their life quality by improving their interpersonal behaviors. The discipline focuses on improving six major personal abilities in communication—self-cognition, perception of others, verbal communication, nonverbal communication, communicating in different relationships and managing interpersonal conflicts.

The social transformation of modern China has greatly changed the Chinese family structure as well as the communication pattern among family members. The roles of gender in family and society are changing. Traditional relationships in workplaces are transformed in the modern world while the parent-child relationship has become more equal.

All these changes pose new challenges to communication. Chinese people are facing great challenges of interpersonal communication, which requires more systematic knowledge to guide the practices of interpersonal communication. The dark clouds shadowing China’s interpersonal communication studies should be cleared away.


Hu Chunyang is from the Journalism School at Fudan University.