East Asia’s Constructivist Silence

When a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

What is meant to illustrate the need to measure – and point out that an observer may influence the very things they want to study without disturbing them – takes on a rather different meaning in East Asia. Here, your identity is more strongly bound up in groups than it is one person’s identity unto itself, and even facts of life exist not just by themselves.

Relationships are a particularly good example – and at the heart of the matter.

Thus, when you register a marriage at the relevant office, you are legally married, but would not quite be considered married – you only registered, after all. No need for witnesses, rings, or anything much. (See Jocelyn’s post here, which made me hurry with this post I had been planning to write ;-) )

Really being married only comes later, when you have a public ceremony with the families, neighbors, friends, and so on, to formally and publicly announce your new status. For a colleague, this back-and-forth went to the point where he had been living together with his girlfriend for quite some time already, but when her family’s neighbors found out, they had to live separately and get married quickly.

On the downside, the same pattern of things only coming into existence when they are formally and publicly announced seems to play out when couples cheat: as long as it is not talked about, nothing is wrong… In the same vein, “Chinese only have sex when they are married” (as a university employee told me), but you can get condoms and the pill at quite a few places even here on campus.

These are rather light-hearted observations, but it gives a new perspective from which to see the problem the Chinese government has with public complaints and investigative journalism. It is an issue we might all know, though: Douglas Coupland’s new vocabulary for the modern, digital age (in the New York Times) included this phrase:

INTRAVINCULAR FAMILIAL SILENCE We need to be around our families not because we have so many shared experiences to talk about, but because they know precisely which subjects to avoid.

There is yet another aspect to the issue, as communication in Chinese also oftentimes assumes that you have a lot of knowledge in common with your partner – so that some things do not have or need to be said: As is oftentimes pointed out, Chinese may not say “I love you” (certainly not as easily as Americans), but rather show affection in deeds.

I am not quite happy with the description as “high-context culture” opposed to the “low-context cultures” such as in America or Europe, where things are to be said in more detail because less knowledge is assumed to be held in common (or whatever the reason is). After all, there are enough short (or complicated) statements in English or German which need context if they are to be understood correctly.
The expectation that certain words and actions have certain meanings and implications does appear to be stronger in China, though; and thoughts may not be made quite as explicit. Feelings, in particular, are not necessarily meant to be shown quite so openly, so that silence oftentimes meets one who might not understand the reason why. Then again, I have been told that I appear too bookish and reserved to some, and feel that certain Chinese proclamatory speeches are all too rich in pathos.

To every way, there is an opposite direction…


  1. […] when the Chinese information policy itself is typically based on “need to know”/ constructivist silence. As I mentioned in my last post, even to people who are in Japan, it is not quite clear how […]

  2. […] The rule is also, however, that the rules may be broken. The current young generation will typically tell their parents that, of course, they are only studying at university – but amongst peers, not being in a relationship is taken as a sign that something is wrong with you. You don’t have to tell, though. Constructivist silence… […]

  3. […] is well known that East Asia has a certain “culture of silence” – an attitude that some things just shouldn’t be talked about and are then also […]

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