Harmony and ELT

This is, perhaps, one of the more “soft and cuddly” titles that I think I’ve ever come up with. And, if you had known me during my M.A.-years, you would know how…negatively…I would have responded to such a title. But, I was 22 then, and I’m 31 now. Also, this doesn’t have to do with the Webster’s Dictionary definition of harmony, so much as it does with the Confucian notion of the word and its implications for intercultural communication between North Americans and individuals from countries that have a culture that has been strongly influenced by so-called Confucian values. I say “so-called” here because what we often see labeled as Confucian is typically attributed to a constellation of philosophers, most of who were Confucius’ adepts at one point or another (e.g., Mencius, Xunzi, Dong Zhongshu, etc.). So in today’s blog post, I’m going to examine how the Confucian notion of harmony may impact ELT when working with students from China—a country that has most certainly been influenced by Confucian values, even if Confucius and the CCP have a conflicted history. Today’s blog is also my attempt to extend one of my recent readings—Wei and Li’s (2013) “The Confucian Value of Harmony and its Influence on Chinese Social Interaction” to make it interface with my professional practice.

Now, Wei and Li (2013) provide a very accessible overview of Confucian thought and of the construct of harmony (和), which they defined as “…the presuppos[ition of] the existence of different things and [the] impl[ication of] a certain favorable relationship among them” (Wei & Li, 2013, p. 61). They then link harmony/和 to a number of cultural traits identified in Chinese interlocutors during interaction and communication studies, showing how each of these traits are geared towards increasing overall social harmony/和. These characteristics include group-centeredness, the doctrine of the mean, face-saving/giving, emphasis on Guanxi (关系), and reciprocity—all of which form a part of Wei & Li’s “harmony maintenance.” While I was reading, I began to think about how some of these play out in my own classrooms and how they may lead to interactional misunderstandings as my students and I engage in intercultural communication. So, I want to zoom in on a couple of these and talk about my personal experiences with them in teaching.


Anyone who has ever taken a course on cross-cultural communication or international business management is familiar with the notion of collectivist cultures, as it is a critical part of Hofstede’s (1984) cultural dimensions framework. Wei and Li (2013) connect the Chinese group-centeredness to the Confucian sense of self which is highly embedded in the social context, which includes a number of social hierarchies. As I was reading, I began to think about how this sense of self, which is a bit different from how I understand self as an identity scholar in TESOL/applied linguistics. If one outcome of this collective sense of self identified by Wei and Li is that students tend to go with the group to promote group harmony, this can have two classroom implications.

The first is that it fundamentally changes how we should think about praising our students in the classroom, especially when working with a room that has a considerable population of Chinese students. One reading of Wei and Li is that praising and highlighting individual achievement over group achievement can threaten group harmony and possibly interpersonal relationships between group members. This means that it may be best to delay individual praise for a more personal venue, like written feedback or a one-to-one conference, and to focus on small-group and classroom-wide achievement. That being said, I do know how competitive my students get when we play games in class. However, the very structure of a competition setting may provide a socially acceptable suspension of traditional interaction guidelines.

The second implication of this group-centeredness is in how we, as teachers, read ownership of ideas, especially when students are taking positions contrary to that of their peers. In my class, I have seen students in group discussions default to the plural pronoun instead of the individual one and to use a seemingly excessive amount of hedges when disagreeing with a classmate or an assigned reading. Wei and Li (2013) pointed out that this may be linked to the maintaining group harmony by toeing the line, especially for those members on the lower rungs of a social group. Initially, this kind of distancing can feel frustrating for me, the western teacher, because I want students to feel comfortable owning their thoughts and opinions. I want them to have agency over their learning. And, I often mark it on papers when students use “we” in single-authored works. However, it may be that the use of “we” is really a singular one. That is, it’s a discourse marker that allows them to respectfully engage in disagreement—with classmates, with source texts, with me—in a way that is in line with their social scripts. So, it may be worthwhile for me as their teacher to critically rethink what ownership and agency over ideas looks like in my classrooms and to find ways to constructively acknowledge the varied ways that this can be expressed.

Saving and Giving Face

If you’ve worked at all with Chinese students or lived in China or just read studies about Chinese interactants, you know all about face: how important it is, how hard one must work to maintain it, and the social consequences of losing it. Wei and Li (2013) extended Goffman’s (1955) definition by stating that Chinese individuals are hyper aware of face—or one’s positive social value that is claimed during an interaction—because of the sociocultural milieu in which they were raised. For me, my students’ attempts to save/give me face in the classroom can cause tension. This is because my teaching style is one that has been profoundly influenced by Miss Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame. Namely, take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. This means no one is going to grow without making mistakes, identifying the source of the error, and rectifying. Said another way, we all have egg on our faces, so don’t worry so much about it. I tell my students regularly that I am highly trained in my field and certainly credentialed enough to be an expert. But, that doesn’t mean that I know everything. They only thing it really means is that I know just how little I know and how much I have left to learn. So, I encourage my students to challenge me if I get something wrong in class—particularly if it’s something related to Chinese linguistics, on which I am most certainly not expert. I tell them to feel free to stop me if I misspeak and we dig into the matter deeper.

I had never considered the stress that this is introduces to the classroom. I’m setting a directive from the authority in the classroom (me) which asks students to go against, what for some of them at least, is a highly ingrained social script—don’t make the boss lose face. So, many of my students will wait until later to bring a slip or error to my attention. I usually respond with something like, “Oh man! That would have made great discussion in class. Be sure to bring that up next time”, and then I’ll forget all about it. So, this requires me to rethink how I do this kind of work in the classroom. This may mean that I need to create other venues for students to make their concerns known that are time displaced and anonymous. It could also mean that I’ll need to start printing a weekly retractions and corrections for my lectures as if I’m some news outlet. But, that’s another thought for another time. While I think more about this, I’ll have to quell my worries that students will start tweeting “#faketeaching” during my lectures…

Source Materials

Goffman, E. (1955). On face-work. Psychiatry, 18, 213.

Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture’s consequences: International difference in work-related values (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Wei, X., & Li, Q. (2013). The Confucian value of harmony and its influence on Chinese social interaction. Cross-cultural Communication, 9(1), 60-66.

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