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Reticence to express emotions verbally has long been observed in Chinese culture, but quantitative comparisons with Western cultures are few. Explanations for emotional reticence have typically focused on the need in collectivist culture to promote group harmony, but this explanation is most applicable to negative emotions such as anger, not positive expressions such as Wo ai ni [I love you]. A survey on verbal usage of Wo ai ni was administered to university students in Beijing and Shanghai, and compared to uses of I love you by American students in the United States. Chinese respondents were not only overall more reticent than Americans in their love expressions, but differed from Americans in avoiding I love you expressions with family (especially parents). Interviews revealed that Chinese and American students, the two groups endorsed different reasons for saying Wo ai nil I love you. The reasons Americans provided most often related to the inherent importance of saying I love you, while this was the least frequently mentioned reason by Chinese. Bicultural Chinese interviewees observed that one could perform nonverbal actions or even say English I love you as substitutions for saying Wo ai ni. Chinese survey respondents did not endorse these options, and instead consistently minimized both verbal and nonverbal love expressions. The pattern of responses is consistent with theoretical proposals about high vs. low context cultures, especially with regards to the usefulness of saying I love you for relationship management purposes, and for asserting (or avoiding) statements of one's individual autonomy.


Originally published in the Journal of Intercultural Pragmatics, 10(1), 41-69.


10.1515/ip- 2013-0002

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