Can Chinese Discuss Conflicts Openly? Field and Experimental Studies of Face Dynamics in China

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Abstract

Chinese people have been theorized to be particularly sensitive to social face and avoid direct discussion in conflict to promote interpersonal harmony. Social face has been used to explain the proclivity of East Asians to smooth over conflict. More research is needed to study social face empirically and its relationship with direct discussion and the processes by which social face has its impact. Results from a field interview study and an experiment conducted in China support theorizing that confirmation of face induces cooperative goals and open-mindedness. In contrast with common assumptions about Chinese organizations, direct discussion, compared to avoiding, strengthened relationships. Direct controversy, especially when face was confirmed, induced open-mindedness: Participants asked more questions, explored the opposing views, demonstrated more knowledge of the opposing arguments, and worked to integrate views. These results were interpreted as suggesting that Chinese people can discuss their conflicts directly and cooperatively when they are assured that their face is confirmed. Results have implications both for the general theory of cooperation and competition as well as our understanding of social face in China.

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