The movie The Joy Luck Club offers so many excellent examples of the conflicts, misunderstandings, and issues that can arise during intercultural communications, even when those involved are aware of many of the differences. Two concepts that I found particularly interesting and evident throughout the film were differences in language functions and differences in verbal style between Chinese American women and their mothers as well as their husbands.
Understanding Diverse Language Functions
Language and cultural values have a direct and interdependent relationship with one another. The language that we use to form our thoughts and perceptions is learned at a very early age on an unconscious level, meaning we don’t realize that we are forming thoughts and perceptions as a result of the words we are learning and the way that we use them. Different worldviews have a significant effect on the languages used in different cultures while simultaneously the languages used in different cultures contribute significantly to the worldviews of those cultures.
The two worldviews that divide Western and Asian cultures are the linear worldview, which is prominent in the United States and emphasizes rational and objective thinking and the relational worldview, prominent in Asian countries, particularly China, which emphasizes a more holistic thinking based on a contextual reality. Linear worldviews emphasize a rational thought process based on facts and evidence, with polarized or extreme views at each end, and a very analytical and specific view with a tangible outcome, while relational worldviews embody more of a continuum of connected thinking, context and relationship based big-picture outcome thought process. “…the Chinese use correlational reasoning notions that are deeply embedded in the Chinese worldview and are manifested via the Chinese language system.” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2005).
Within differing cultures, the language spoken, as well as the way it is used, have a significant effect on the way we perceive what is important and valued, or what matters and what doesn’t matter and what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for the different genders and roles. It affects what we perceive our roles to be, how we measure our worth, and what is expected of us and those around us. This is the social reality function.
Throughout the movie, The Joy Luck Club, we see numerous examples of this concept. The Chinese women were made to feel that one of, if not the most important role or behavior for them was obedience. When June was a young girl, she played piano. Her mother was adamant that she practice consistently. After a bad recital, when June refused to practice after school, her mother dragged her to the piano and forced her to play. When June exclaimed that she would never be the kind of daughter that her mother Suyuan wanted her to be, her mother told her, “there are only two kinds of daughters; obedient kind or follow own mind.” It was clear that obedience was the expectation. This was considered extremely important for Chinese females. As children they were expected to obey their parents and elders, and when they became wives, they were expected to be good, obedient wives to their husbands.
When Rose, another Chinese American woman in America, met her future husband in college and eventually married him, the perceptions and expectations that the Chinese culture engrained in her eventually resulted in her losing herself and becoming nothing more than a boring, nevertheless, obedient wife. Day in and day out, she did nothing but wait on her husband and do all the things she thought a “good wife” should do. She never expressed her own needs or opinions anymore. She did not want to create conflict between herself and her husband. That was the expectation that she understood she was to fulfill. Her husband, who was American and who fell in love with her originally because she was so different from American women, eventually strayed from the marriage and had an affair. Rose had become so focused on being the perfect, obedient wife that she thought she had to be, that her husband no longer knew who she was or what she wanted. She wasn’t allowing herself to matter because the Chinese culture and worldview taught her that she should bury her own needs and focus only on her husband’s needs.
Another example of the importance of obedience and how it was engrained in the minds of Chinese females at a very young age, is Lindo’s story of when she was just four years old and she came home to her mother sitting with two other women talking about and deciding Lindo’s future, that when she turned 15, she would go live in Haung Tai Tai’s house and be married to her son, a stranger who she had never met before, in order to give her Haung Tai Tai many grandchildren. Lindo was uncomfortable and would not obey her mother’s request to come closer so that Haung Tai Tai could get a better look at her. Lindo’s mother explained, “She’s usually very obedient. She’s just shy today.”
The marriage did happen when Lindo turned 15. She was expected to respect and obey her husband and to give him many children. On their wedding night, her husband told her, “I am the husband and I make all the decisions. You sleep on the floor. Do it now! Do it now!” “For the next few years,” Lindo narrates, “I tried to act like a good, obedient wife and daughter in law.” Haung Tai Tai was still not pleased with her because she was not producing children and her husband assured his mother that he had given his wife plenty of seeds. This was a lie, but one that Lindo could not protest. The Asian culture places a very high degree of importance on saving face, not embarrassing or humiliating others. Therefore, Lindo disrespecting her husband and his family by indicating that he was lying and not having intimate relations with her, would be unacceptable and extremely insulting. This was not an option. Chinese women are to be obedient, as both Lindo and June learned at very early ages through their interconnected language functions and culture.
Direct and Indirect Verbal Styles
The differences between verbal styles in different cultures can cause misunderstanding and conflict. We use varying degrees of direct and indirect verbal styles when communicating, depending on our culture and background, assumptions about identities and intentions, and our goals in communication situations, but generally speaking, the more individualistic cultures tend to emphasize direct verbal communication and collectivistic cultures tend to use a more indirect verbal style. In the United States and similar individualistic cultures, we often use a direct, assertive approach, and phrases like, “the point is…”. In Asian and Korean cultures, a more passive approach is used, where the dialogue is indirect or subtle, leaving the person on the receiving end of the message to read between the lines and interpret the meaning. This is often done as a way to save face and avoid confrontation or conflict, and save the relationship, which is critical to these cultures.
We see this in The Joy Luck Club when we see the contrast between how Waverly communicates and how her mother, Lindo communicates. Waverly, after living many years in America, uses a very direct verbal style in her daily life. Her mother, however, having had the Chinese culture influence her style of communicating, is only comfortable with indirect verbal communications. In the scene where Waverly wants to let her mother know that she and her boyfriend, Rich, are living together, Waverly knows enough to realize that she may need to adapt to her mother’s indirect verbal style of communication in order to avoid awkwardness and conflict. She takes her mother to their home, to show her the new fur coat that Rich gave her as a gift. Of course, Rich’s things are all over the house, so Waverly knows that her mother will put two and two together and realize that her daughter wants her to know that this man is special and they are living together. Things are serious between them. Lindo, being much more passive and indirect, says nothing about the fact that there are men’s things all over the house. She disapproves, but does not come out and say so, which is extremely frustrating to Waverly, who just wants her mother’s approval. She finally explodes, confronting her mother about Rich living there, while pulling out his ties and condoms and throwing them around in her mother’s face. Her mother, not able to be direct, criticizes the fur coat that Rich bought for Waverly, stating that it is not of high quality and the fur is too short. This is her way of communicating her belief that Rich is not good enough for her daughter.
When Waverly brings Rich to dinner, we see a great example of how high-context Asian cultures often use silence, (also known as “ma”), as an important aspect of communicating, considered appropriate in ambiguous or unpredictable social situations. (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2005). When Rich walks in to meet Lindo for the first time, she remains silent while he shakes her hand and explains that it is so nice to meet her and that he has heard so much about her from Waverly. Her controlled silence is Lindo’s way of controlling the ambiguity and unknown in meeting Rich, an American man, for the first time.
When Lindo and Waverly are at the hair salon, we see yet another example of conflict because of differences in verbal communication style. Lindo is sitting in the chair at the salon thinking that her daughter is ashamed of her, while Waverly is standing there, frustrated and disappointed that her mother doesn’t like Rich, whom she is about to marry. Because Lindo can’t openly and directly explain to Waverly that she feels Waverly is disappointed and ashamed of her, she sits quietly, waiting for her daughter to ask her what is wrong. When Waverly directly asks her what it wrong, Lindo uses a story about how much she admired her own mother, as an indirect way of saying that she wishes Waverly felt that way about her. Lindo was hoping that Waverly would read between the lines and decode her indirect message. When Waverly tells her mother that she fears she will never be able to be good enough or live up to her mother’s expectations and that one word of disapproval from her mother has tremendous power over her, bringing her to tears and keeping her up at night, Lindo simply cries tears of joy and says how happy Waverly has made her. It becomes clear that Waverly does adore and admire her mother tremendously and her mother’s reaction makes it clear to Waverly, that she does have her mother’s approval. We see in this scene, just how difficult it can be to communicate when the two involved are used to such different verbal styles.
The interactions between the mothers and daughters and the husbands and wives in The Joy Luck Club, are an excellent demonstration of just how much conflict, frustration, miscommunication, and even heartache there can be as a result of differing communication styles in different cultures. Although all of the women are Chinese, the daughters, being raised in America versus China, have developed a stronger sense of Western culture and it shows in their communication styles. Similarly, we see difficulties in relationships between the Chinese women and the American men they marry, because of intercultural communication and differences in worldviews and perceptions. We saw examples of misunderstandings which arose in romantic and family relationships, but similar misunderstandings can and do occur in intercultural business relationships and between countries, causing conflict and even war. As we saw the women do in The Joy Luck Club, we can all benefit from learning more about other cultures, so that we have a better understanding of our differences and can find better ways of communicating, while being aware of, and appreciating our intercultural differences.
Stella Ting-Toomey and Leeva C. Chung, Understanding Intercultural Communication, Los Angeles, California: Roxbury Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-533006-9