In brief, culture, as supported by a set of values, is characterized by elements of beliefs, symbols, and behaviors. In a high-context culture such as Chinese, culture is relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. Chinese highly value interpersonal relationships. There is a general assumption of commonality of knowledge and views. Communication is implicit and indirect. Many things are left unsaid letting the culture explain. As a result, the Chinese depend on a number of paralinguistic factors to decode speaker’s intention. In turn, silence holds a tremendously significant contextual meaning: a sign of resignation to elders, a display of respect for the wisdom and expertise of others, a thinking space for clarity, or even a form of disagreement without direct confrontation.
To honor harmony, Chinese value implicit mutual obligations and understanding through which silence is preserved by holding back difference in opinions especially in public, thereby attaining a harmonious relationship, a symbol of character and personal influence. The notion of expressing different views means being an antagonist and taking an opposing side. It becomes personal and is considered aiming at the individual specifically. I have noticed my way of participating in discussions, selectively and non-argumentatively, and seldom in disagreement, is particularly influenced by this deep-seated belief.
Collectivism is an act to balance individual needs against societal needs. It places group responsibility before an individual will. While it acknowledges the more significant and grander whole, the very essence paralyzes a person to speak up or defend his/her standpoint, always end up yielding to the reality of the majority rules. Discourse is futile in a culture of collectivism. As such, presenting ‘self’ seems too obviously would show up as being disrespectful to the community. Where am I on that continuum? After having lived in the US for 25 years, the notion of collectivism still plays a role in holding me back in speaking up at times.
A high-context culture is characterized by hierarchical institutions that are well-understood and often unspoken norms in society and family. For thousands of years, the respect for hierarchy, which is a function of age and life experience, has been expressed at home in complete compliance with our parents. It is impermissible to question elders’ authority, and we know our place not to speak up, not defend our action, and not challenge parental decisions that were decided upon us. There is no doubt that I experienced similar ‘norm’ in my childhood, although not to the extreme on the continuum.
Despite the influence of the British governing in Hong Kong has had an enormous impact on shaping the city, the culture and its people to adopt the Western way, and despite the fact that I received my education in a Christian-based school, we were still very much expected to navigate the wider system of hierarchy according to the teachings of ancient Chinese wisdom.
What is the impact on my journey of growth in becoming who I am? It has planted the seeds of courage and boldness in giving myself a voice, which fruits are still growing, waiting to be harvested.