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A cross-cultural study of silence in marital conflict.

Silence is an important and understudied communication behavior. The ability to use silence appropriately and to adequately interpret the silence of others is indispensable for successful communication (Jaworski, 1993). When used skillfully, silence can protect interactants' faces, help control conflict, and maintain relational harmony. People learn to use silence, as well as other appropriate conflict strategies and tactics, through socialization in a particular culture. The purpose of this study is to examine the influence of culture on the use of silence in marital conflict.

Culture and the Use of Silence in Communication

Western and Eastern cultures differ in their use, evaluation, and interpretation of silence in communication. In Western culture, such as in the mainstream United States, talk is viewed positively and is generally rewarded (Kim, 1999). As Pearce and Cronen (1980) argued, Westerners since the Ancient Greeks have tended to rely on talk and rhetoric as a tool for the discovery and expression of truth. In addition, there seems to be an aversion to silence in that people find it awkward and embarrassing (Giles et al., 1992). "Silence tends to be interpreted variously as lack of interest, an unwillingness to communicate, a sign of hostility, rejection, interpersonal incompatibility, anxiety or shyness, or a lack of verbal skills" (Giles et al., 1992, p. 219). In Western culture, the development of an interpersonal relationship is heavily dependent on the amount of communication in which interactants are willing to engage; hence, the more a person is willing to talk and to be nonverbally expressive, the more likely that person will develop positive interpersonal relationships (Kim, 1999). Studies indicate that most Americans believe that talking is an important and enjoyable activity (e.g., Giles et al., 1992). Americans are not alone in their avoidance of silence. Jewish (Tannen, 1985), Italian (Sander, 1985), and Arab (Samovar & Porter, 2001) cultures stress social interaction among friends and family, and there is often very little silence in conversations among members of these cultures. Caucasian Americans tend to use talk for affiliative purposes, for entertainment, and to fill silence which they find stressful (Giles et al., 1992). In other words, silence can be caricatured as negatively regarded for Westerners (Newman, 1982).

In contrast, Eastern cultures do not place as high a premium on the amount and frequency of talk as does the mainstream U.S. culture (Kim, 1999). Eastern tradition appears to value the preservation of the harmony of the social group above the expression of individuals' inner thoughts and negative feelings (Barnlund, 1989). In Eastern cultures that emphasize ingroup interdependence and harmony, arguing is perceived as an unpleasant activity of dubious value that leads to anger and unreasonable behaviors; thus these negative beliefs about arguing may significantly dampen motivation to argue and heighten verbal communication avoidance (Kim, 1999). In addition, Easterners believe that meanings can be sensed but not phrased and a talkative person is often considered a "show-off" or insincere (Kim, 1999). Eastern cultures encourage caution in speech so that talk in general comes to be regarded as less important (Bond, 1993). Chinese proverbs warn: "disasters result from the mouth" and "more words, more mistakes."

The value of silence in Japan derives from the conceptualization of the self as split into two parts: the inner and the outward (Lebra, 1987). The inner self is associated with truthfulness and is located symbolically in the heart and belly while the outward self is associated with the face, mouth and spoken words, and with deception, disguise, falsity, etc. (Lebra, 1987). Silence expresses inner truth (Lebra, 1987). The Japanese "haragei" (wordless communication), the Korean term "noon-chi" (Kim et al., 1998), and Chinese term "mo-chi" (tacit understanding) capture the essence of Easterners' positive feelings toward communication without words. Communication avoidance in Eastern culture is perceived as an individual's sensitivity to social context and a heightened awareness of others' evaluations (Sharkey & Singelis, 1995). The sensitivity to the social context may be viewed as a positive characteristic that contributes to the individual's ability to adapt to and fit into a social system (Sharkey & Singelis, 1995). Rather than viewing silence as an unwillingness to communicate, a sign of hostility, or a lack of verbal skills, Easterners see silence as evidence of an individual's self-control and desire to maintain relational harmony. For example, Chinese emphasize self-restraint and self-discipline to avoid aggressive behaviors, hoping to save each other's face and maintain harmony between two parties in the conflict, and silence is a way to achieve the goal (Chen, 2002). As Lebra (1987) argues, for Japanese, communicative competence means the ability to send and receive subtle, unstated messages. The differences in valuation of silence and talk affect the way people handle their conflicts.

Marital Conflict in Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures

Although in Western individualist cultures intimate conflict is an overt phenomenon, in many non-Western cultures the experience of intimate conflict can be very subtle and elusive (Ting-Tooney, 1994). Strongly influenced by Chinese culture, Eastern collectivists value harmony in their personal relationships. Chinese believe that negative emotions make a person vulnerable to serious physical or mental illnesses. The goal is to maintain emotional balance in order to protect internal homeostasis. Social interchanges must be carefully monitored and managed in order to guard one's internal condition (Bond, 1993). Therefore, Chinese pay considerable attention to maintaining a state of interpersonal harmony in their social networks (Bond, 1993). Hostile behavior, in particular, is avoided (Ho, 1986). Confrontational judgments of attribution are moderated in public settings (Bond et al., 1985). Indirect styles of conflict management are preferred (Chen, 2002) and interpersonal problems are presented in a less threatening manner (Cheung, 1986). In general, Chinese believe that a moderate emotional demeanor promotes harmony by giving others space to express themselves more easily (Bond, 1993).

The effect of culture on the use of silence in marital conflict can best be understood by examining how cultures are different or similar. A cultural variability perspective depicts how cultures differ in regard to basic characteristics or values (Ting-Toomey, 1994). While there are many dimensions on which cultures differ, the one that has received considerably more attention than others from cross-cultural communication researchers around the world is Triandis' (1988) individualism-collectivism.

Relationships in individualistic cultures value autonomy, differentiation, and the unique qualities of the people in the relationship whereas collateral-based relationships value role obligations and in-group interdependence, kinship bonds, and extended family bonds (Ting-Toomey, 1999). The dimension of individualism-collectivism provides a conceptual grid for describing how self-concepts vary across cultures. Additionally, it clarifies how the various "I" identity or "we" identity orientations influence everyday communication behaviors across cultures (Ting-Toomey, 1999). Overall, intimate partners in individualistic cultures have to spend enormous time and energy dealing with personal privacy and autonomy issues on one hand, and relatedness and connection on the other, whereas intimate partners in the collectivistic cultures have to learn to work out their relational commitment to their loved ones or spouses on one hand, and deal effectively with their family and social/personal network issues on the other (Ting-Toomey, 1994). Since collectivists have to be more concerned about the connection with others than individualists are, they focus on relational harmony when dealing with intimate conflict (Ting-Toomey, 1994). Consequently, collectivists are more attentive to how the conflict is expressed than individualists (Ting-Toomey, 1994).

As Ting-Toomey (1985) contended, members of individualistic cultures are more likely to perceive conflict as instrumental rather than expressive in nature, and members of collectivistic cultures are more likely to perceive conflict as expressive rather than instrumental in nature. Members of individualistic cultures often separate the issue on which they have conflicts from the people with whom they have conflicts, whereas members of collectivistic cultures, in contrast, generally do not make this distinction (Sherif, 2003). Ting-Toomey (1994) believes that members of individualistic cultures take a short-term view of managing conflicts, while members of collectivistic cultures take a long-term view of managing conflicts. Members of individualistic cultures are concerned with the immediate conflict situations; once the conflicts are managed, they can move on to other issues in their relationships with those whom they have conflicts with (Sherif, 2003). Members of collectivistic cultures, in contrast, focus on long-term relationships with others (Sherif, 2003). Perhaps the immediate conflict is important, but the critical issue for collectivists is whether they can depend on others over the long term (Sherif, 2003).

Independent and Interdependent Self-Construals

Some scholars have suggested that cultural-level individualism and collectivism are limited predictors of individual behaviors because they do not reveal what aspects of culture influences an individual's communication (e.g., Gudykunst et al., 1996; Kim et al., 1996). Because individualism and collectivism exist in all cultures, broad cultural-level individualism-collectivism dimensions alone cannot be used to predict an individual's behavior (Gudykunst et al., 1996). The individual-level factors that mediate the influence of cultural individualism-collectivism on individual behavior also must be considered (Gudykunst et al., 1996). The influence of individualism-collectivism on individuals' behavior is mediated through values and the way individuals conceive themselves (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).

Markus and Kitayama (1991) suggest two types of self-construals, interdependent and independent, and argue for the systematic influence of these differing self-concepts on cognition, emotion, and motivation. These two images of self were originally conceptualized as reflecting the emphasis on connectedness and relations often found in non-Western cultures (interdependent) and the separatedness and uniqueness of the individual stressed in the West (independent). The independent self-construal views self as an entity that comprises a unique, bounded configuration of internal attributes (e.g., preferences, traits, abilities, motives, values, and rights) and behaves primarily as consequence of these internal attributes (Markus and Kitayama, 1991). By contrast, in the interdependent construal, the self is not viewed as an independent entity separate from the collective (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Everyone has both independent and interdependent self-construals, but they tend to use one to guide their behaviors more than the other (Gudykunst & Lee, 2002). People might be primed to use particular self-construals in certain situations (Kuehnen, Hannover and Schubert (2001).

This study examines the relationship between self-construals and the use of silence in marital conflict. We examine how independent and interdependent self-construals affect the use of silence to protect self and other's face, to maintain relational harmony, and to control the partner's behavior.

Rationale and Hypotheses

Silence and Face

Face refers to a claimed sense of favorable social self-worth that a person wants others to have of her or him; it is a vulnerable identity-based resource because it can be enhanced or threatened in any uncertain social situation, such as conflict management (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998). Ting-Toomey and Kurogi (1998) argue that because face influences conflict behavior, both parties have to consider protecting self-interest and honoring or attacking the other person's goal. A person's face can be threatened by losing an argument, losing one's temper, getting caught in a lie, or breaking a promise (Cupach & Canary, 1997). The person can also threaten the conflict partner's face through making direct personal criticisms, making him or her look stupid, insulting or ridiculing him or her, or blaming the other for causing a problem (Cupach & Canary, 1997). When face-threats escalate in intensity and severity, intimate partners become defensive and close-minded and are more likely to engage in hurtful put-down or exiting the conflict scene all together (Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2001). Remaining silent in a conflict is a way to avoid threatening the conflict partner's face.

Cloven and Roloff's (1994) study of the individualistic culture in the United States indicates that individuals may leave a conflict unexpressed to protect their own self-images. For members of collectivistic cultures, however, avoidance is used to maintain mutual-face interests and relational network interests (Ting-Toomey, 1988). For example, Chen, Ryan and Chen's (2000) cross-cultural study has found that Chinese scored significantly higher on indirect avoidance style than Americans. In his discussion of Chinese conflict management, Chen (2002) also contends that "when Chinese are challenged, they may keep silent without rejoining or discussing a point even if they feel they are right, hoping to save each other's face and keep a harmonious relationship between the two parties" (p. 8). Cole (1989) has found that Japanese perceive they have lost face when they are not able to maintain ingroup harmony, such as when they shame or disgrace a friend or coworker. North Americans, in contrast, perceive they have lost face when they personally fail, such as when they lose an argument.

Collectivists tend to use other-oriented face-saving strategies such as avoiding and obliging to maintain relational harmony, and individualists tend to use direct face-saving strategies such as integrating and then dominating (Oetzel, 1998; Ting-Toomey et al., 1991). Oetzel and associates (2003) have also found that independent self-construal is positively associated with self-face and dominating facework. Interdependent self-construal is positively associated with other--and mutual-face, and integrating and avoiding facework behaviors. Based on the conceptualization and findings, the following hypotheses are developed.

H1. Individuals' interdependent self-construal scores will correlate positively with the likelihood of using silence in marital conflict to protect other's self-image.

H2. Individuals' independent self-construal scores will correlate positively with the likelihood of using silence in marital conflict to protect their own self-image.

Silence and Harmony

The concept of harmony taught by Confucius 2,500 years ago influences Eastern cultures (e.g., China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan) to value conflict avoidance in order to sustain smooth interpersonal relationships (Leung et al., 2002). Harmony is the cardinal value of Chinese culture; maintaining a harmonious relationship is the ultimate goal of human communication so that conflict is considered as a problem of communication (Chen, 2002). Therefore, "the ability to reach a harmonious state of human relationship becomes the main criterion for evaluating whether an individual is competent in the process of Chinese communication" (Chen, 2002).

Similarly, the value of harmony is prevalent in Korean culture. Cho and Park (1998), for example, have found that group harmony is the most important managerial value in Korean firms. The Korean word "kibun" means good personal mood and a general satisfactory state of affairs; while maintaining harmony requires not hurting others' "kibun," particularly that of personally related people (Cho & Park, 1998). In Japan, social harmony is also emphasized (Ohbuchi, 1998). Ohbuchi (1998) contends that there are several popular Japanese phrases that express overt conflicts in a negative light: for example, "koto wo aradateru," to intensify a social conflict and "koto wo kamaeru," to make a conflict overt. These popular phrases imply that the Japanese strongly value social harmony and social order (Ohbuchi, 1998).

The pursuit of family harmony is a more manifest goal in Eastern collectivist cultures, where the interdependent self-contruals predominate, than in Western individualist ones, where the independent self-construal predominates. Individuals from cultures where an indirect communication style is emphasized tend to be more silent and avoid saying "no" in conflict situations in order to maintain relational harmony (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988; Huang, 2002). As Saunders's (1985) study concluded, silence is particularly important in a society where estrangement in family relationships is considered a great tragedy. Silence strategies are considerably more important in family-oriented collectivist cultures where the interdependent self-construals predominate. Hence, the following hypothesis is developed:

H3. Individuals' interdependent self-construal scores will correlate positively with the likelihood of using silence in marital conflict to promote harmony.

Silence and Control

Sometimes, silence may be regarded as a sign of someone's power or control over others (Jaworski, 1993). As Tannen (1985) suggests, silence in itself is not necessarily a sign of powerlessness, just as volubility in itself is not necessarily a sign of domination. For example, Sattel's (1983) analysis reports that men use silence to exercise power over women and peers. "Silence and inexpression are the ways men learn to consolidate power, to make the effort appear as effortless, to guard against showing the real limits on one's potential and power by making it all seem easy; even among males, one maintains control over a situation by revealing only strategic proportions of oneself" (Sattel, 1983, p.122). The use of silence, inexpressiveness, is related to men's position of dominance; it works as a method for achieving control both in male-female and in male-male interaction (Sattel, 1983). Defrancisco's (1991) study of couples' daily interactions confirmed Sattel's (1983) assumptions that men tended to silence women in marital relations. Clearly silence can be a strategy to control partners in intimate conflicts.

The reason that men are more controlling than women is because women are raised in the United Stated and Asia as more interdependent and men more independent. Cross and Madson (1997) conclude that many gender differences in cognition, motivation, emotion, and social behavior may be explained in terms of men's and women's different self-construals; in general, men in the United States are thought to construct and maintain an independent self-construal, whereas women are thought to construct and maintain an interdependent self-construal.

Individuals high in independent self-construals prefer to use a dominating strategy to deal with conflict while those high in interdependent self-construals prefer to use an obliging strategy (Oetzel, 1998a). The dominating strategy reflects competitive and power-oriented thoughts (Rahim, 1983). Thus, the following hypothesis is offered:

H4. Individuals' independent self-construal scores will correlate positively with the likelihood of using silence in marital conflicts as a control move.



A Likert-type, self-report scale was developed to measure the uses of silence in marital conflict. According to Canary et al., (1995), self-reports provide information pertinent to various levels of experience, ranging from the general and abstract to the specific and concrete that help assess an individual's global conflict style or predisposition across contexts and relationship targets. There are a number of benefits in using self-report measures in this study. First, self-reports offer the most direct estimate of how people experience interpersonal conflicts (Canary et al., 1995). Although self-reports do not provide an objective measure of actual behavior in conflict episodes, they do reflect a meaningful appraisal of how people interpret actions (Canary et al., 1995; Roberts, 2000). Conflict episodes are embedded within the larger relational culture; a system of rules, roles, norms, rituals, expectations, and interpretive filters (Metts, Sprecher, & Cupach, 1991). Self-report is "an ideal vehicle for gaining access to relational cultures and the meanings ascribed to the events occurring within those subjective worlds" (Metts, Sprecher, & Cupach, 1991, p. 170). Furthermore, self-reports can maximize the ecological validity of data (Canary, 1995). As Canary indicated:
 Conflict in close relationships often occurs
 privately and unpredictably. Self-report can depict
 behaviors that occur naturally in the context of
 everyday mundane interaction, behaviors to which
 the researcher is not privy otherwise. Indeed, the
 most intense and belligerent conflicts are not
 observed directly by researchers, nor can they be
 induced without incurring ethical problems. Thus,
 self-reports offer inside information about real
 activities, compensating for the sometimes
 contrived or artificial flavor attendant on the
 situations that researchers can directly observe

The questionnaire first asked respondents to list topics of conflicts or disagreements that they had experienced with their spouses and then identify the one topic that was most important or meaningful. Subjects then reported how likely they were to act or respond to that topic by marking a five-interval Likert scale that followed statements composed to reflect each of the four uses of silence (e.g., "I would remain silent to show my dominance"). A pilot study was conducted to assess the reliability of the silence scales. Participants consisted of 42 college students and staff from a middle-sized technical college who had been married. Coefficient alphas ranged from .72 to .83 for the 4 silence scales, after deleting scale items that had low item-total correlations. Additional items were composed, resulting in a 23-item questionnaire.

Gudykunst et al's (1996) Self-Construal Scale was used to measure the strength of a respondent's interdependent and independent self-construals. The SCS scale consisted of twenty-eight items in a 7-point Likert-type format (1=strongly disagree, 7= strongly agree), 14 items for each self-construal. The scales measured what people believe about the relationship between the self and others and, especially, the degree to which they see themselves as separate from others or as connected with others. The scale had been shown to discriminate validity and to be reliable with coefficient Alpha ranging from .73 to .85 across four cultures, the United States, Japan, Korea and Australia (Gudykunst et al, 1996).

An additional questionnaire solicited demographic information: age, gender, ethnic background, educational attainment, years married, and number of children. All questionnaires were translated into Chinese.


Participants were volunteers known by one of seven assistants who helped collect the data or referred to the assistants by others. The assistants explained the general purpose of the study, described the nature and length of the questionnaire to be completed, and asked for volunteers. Subjects were asked to sign the consent form and to return the questionnaire in a sealed envelop in three days. One hundred forty-six respondents participated in this study including 78 Asians (51 Taiwanese and 27 Chinese-Americans) and 68 Americans (62 Americans, 4 European-Americans and 2 African-Americans). Fifty were male and ninety-six were female. Their average age was 40.8. Both the English and Chinese versions of questionnaires were given to subjects in the United States and Taiwan.

Data Analysis

Multiple regression was used to analyze the data. The independent and interdependent self-construal variables were entered simultaneously in order to test the hypotheses. Ethnicity was entered next in order to assess whether there were cultural effects that were not accounted for by self-construals.


Preliminary Analysis

Scale Reliabilities

Reliability analyses for the dependent variables revealed coefficient alphas ranging from .67 to .85 and that none of these could be substantially improved by the deletion of items. Some were lower than desired, but were still within acceptable limits (DeVellis, 1991). Reliability analyses for the independent variables revealed coefficient alphas of .78 for interdependent and .86 for independent self-construal.

Ethnic Group Differences

The Chinese and American participants differed significantly on the independent (t=-4.23; df=144; p<.001) and interdependent (t=3.16; df=144; p<.002) self-construal scales. As expected, Americans exhibited significantly higher independent self-construal scores (X =79.19) and lower interdependent self-construal scores (X=72.62) than Chinese (X=71.59 and X=78.21, respectively).

Scale Correlations

In order to see the bivariate relationships among all the variables, a correlation matrix was computed and is reproduced in Table 1.

Regression Analyses

Others' Self-image

Independent and interdependent self-construals were entered into the regression equation and resulted in a significant effect [F(2,143) =4.26, p<.02; [R.sup.2]=.06]. Examination of the beta coefficients indicated that interdependent self-construal (Beta=-.23; t=-2.83; p<.01) proved significant. The higher the individuals' score of interdependent self-construal, the more likely they used silence to protect their spouses' self-image in marital conflict. The ethnicity variable was entered into the regression equation's third steps but was not significant. Hypothesis 1was supported.

One's Own Self-image

Independent and interdependent self-construals were entered into the regression equation and resulted in a significant effect [F(2,143)=-4.72, p<.02 [R.sup.2] =.06]. Examination of the beta coefficients indicated that interdependent self-construal (Beta=-.24; t=-2.99; p<.01) proved significant; the higher the interdependent self-construal score, the less likely the use of silence to protect own self-image in marital conflict. The ethnicity variable was entered into the regression equation's second step and resulted in a significant effect [F(1,142) change =12.27, p<.002]. Examination of the beta coefficients indicated that ethnicity (Beta=.31; t=3.50; p<.005) proved significant. Americans are more likely to use silence to protect their own self-image in marital conflict than Asians. Thus, hypothesis 2 was not supported. Moreover, the results indicated that use of silence to protect own self-image was related to both the interdependent self-construal and ethnicity.


Independent and interdependent self-construals and ethnicity were entered into the regression but yielded no significant effects. Hypothesis 3 was not supported.


Independent and interdependent self-construal variables were entered into the regression equation but were not significant. Entering the ethnicity variable into the regression equation resulted in a significant effect [F(1,142) change=15.96, p<.001, [R.sup.2] =.11]. Examination of the beta coefficient indicated that ethnicity (Beta=.36; t=4.0; p<.001) proved significant. Americans are more likely to use silence to control marital conflict than Asians. However, hypothesis 4 was not supported.


The present data support hypothesis one in which individuals' interdependent self-construal scores correlate positively with the likelihood of using silence to protect spouses' self-image in marital conflict. Individuals with interdependent self-construals are more likely to report using silence to keep from embarrassing or hurting their partner in an argument. This coincides closely with prior research and theory. For example, when communicating with others, high interdependents are known to value other-face and mutual-face concerns (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998). Moreover, ethnicity does not explain any of the variance in this dependent variable. Apparently there are not broad, culture-level differences in the use of silence to protect other's face but that individual differences are related to the interdependent self-construal.

The second hypothesis predicted that individuals' independent self-construal scores would correlate positively with the likelihood of using silence to protect their own self-image in marital conflict, but it was not supported by the data. Perhaps independents do not perceive remaining silent in marital conflict as an effective self-face enhancement strategy. As Roloff and Cloven (1990) argue, silently withholding grievances and irritation in conflict is a form of powerlessness. Remaining silent may be viewed by individuals with high independent self-construals as a loss of face. A second explanation could be that the sample size was not large enough to detect the relationship between these variables. However, a power analysis indicated that the probability of detecting a truly significant, medium-sized effect exceeded .98 (calculation followed procedure suggested by Cohen, 1988).

The use of silence to protect own self-image was related to the interdependent self-construal variable and to ethnicity. Individuals with high interdependent self-construals were less likely to use silence to protect their own self-image. This finding parallels the effects of the interdependent self-construal on the use of silence to protect others' self-image. The data also indicated that Americans were more often to use silence to protect their own self-image in marital conflict than Asians. Schwartz's research on cultural values (1992) suggests American culture focuses on pursuing self-interest and autonomy, and encourages competing and dominating styles of communication; whereas East Asian culture focuses on pursuing collective interest and encourages indirect and non-confrontational, harmonious, style of communication. The finding is consistent with core value of American culture. The finding is also consistent with previous findings that Americans tend to use self-orient face-saving strategy in conflict management, whereas Asians tend to use other-oriented face-saving in conflict management (e.g., Oetzel, 1998a; Ting-Toomey et al., 1991).

The results also failed to support hypothesis three which predicted that individuals' interdependent self-construal scores would correlate positively with the likelihood of using silence as a harmonizing move in marital conflict. Apparently this use of silence relates to neither the cultural-level nor individual level variables. Maintaining harmony in marital conflict might be considered as equally important for both Americans and Asians. Uleman et al., (2000) found that the desire to maintain harmony to show relational closeness had a high association with only voluntary groups, such as friends, but had a low association with involuntary in-groups, such as family and relatives for both American and Asian subjects. Uleman et al., (2000) concluded: if harmony with friends is lost, they are no longer friends. Family members, on the other hand, are always family members; and harmony with them may be lower than with relatives because family members are most intimately involved in daily living.

Hypothesis four predicted using silence as a control move in marital conflicts was related to individuals' independent self-construal scores. Data failed to support this hypothesis but revealed ethnic differences. Americans were more likely than Chinese to report using silence to control marital conflict. This again suggests that self-construals are unable to predict the use of silence in marital conflict, but general cultural values may be. As previously suggested, American culture encourages people to pursue self-interest, to value autonomy, and to prefer competing and dominating styles of communication; whereas East Asian culture encourages people to pursue collective interest, and to prefer indirect and non-confrontational harmonious styles of communication (Schwartz, 1992). This finding is also consistent with a number of previous findings that Americans prefer a dominating style of conflict management (e.g., Oetzel, 1998a; Chiu & Kosinski, 1994; Knutson, Hwang, & Deng, 2000).

Several additional issues raised by these findings warrant attention. First, these findings provide only a little clarification of the controversy concerning the use of self-construal scales. Recently, some scholars (e.g., Levine et al, 2003; Matsumoto, 1999) have argued against the validity of the self-construal scales, contending that the construct is multidimensional. Cross et al. (2000) suggested there are, at least, two types of interdependent self-construals, group-oriented and relationship-oriented interdependence. The interdependent self-construal scale used in the study is more group-oriented; 10 out of 14 items in the scale are group-based items. However, relational interdependent self-construal would be more appropriate for the cross-cultural study of marital conflict. Since group memberships are less important to U.S. adults than to people in East Asia, Americans may not score high in group-based interdependent self-construal, but may score high on the relational one. In short, the interdependent scale used in this study is focused on group-based interdependence and this may account for why the interdependent self-construal scale failed to predict the use of silence to maintain family harmony. However, we did find that the interdependent self-construal scale correlated with the use of silence to protect self and others' faces, suggesting that the scale is valid. Also, the scale differentiated between the Chinese and American participants as expected. Perhaps future research could clarify whether the distinction between group and relational interdependence is useful for understanding the use of silence in marital conflict. However, these results are less ambiguous in regard to the independent self-construal scale. This data supported none of the hypothesized relationships between the independent self-construal and the use of silence. Moreover, a factor analysis of the self-construal scale indicated that the independent items loaded on four different and uninterpretable factors. However, the scale did detect significant and expected differences between the two ethnic groups. Hence, these results suggest that more careful attention to the conceptualization and measurement of self-construals could be beneficial.

This study is limited by the sample and the use of self-report measures. The two cultures selected for the study are very different so that the results do provide a basis for tentative generalization. However, utilizing participants from only two cultures means that the generalizations must be recognized as tentative. A wider variety of populations with differing linguistic and social-cultural backgrounds should be investigated in the future study. Incorporating more cultures into the sample might have resulted in support for more hypotheses.

The use of self-report measures of marital conflict also limits our findings. First, the emotional arousal associated with conflict can impair an individual's ability to remember events accurately and judge behavior fairly (Sillar, 1985 cited in Canary et al., 1995). This would be more likely to contaminate the validity of data in subjects reporting about their use of silence in marital conflict. Second, systematic perceptual bias could impair the validity of self-reports (Canary et al., 1995), such as, the fundamental attribution error (Sillar, 1985 cited in Canary et al., 1995). An individual might attribute his or her silence to protect the spouse's self-image or family harmony, rather than, in fact, hiding a lie from the spouse. Third, the potential for socially desirable responses in studies of intimate conflicts is invariably presented (Canary et al., 1995). This is likely to be the case with the harmony and control scales, which asked respondents to indicate how likely they would silence their spouses to control marital conflict and ignore the family harmony.


The findings strongly support the distinction among the different functions of silence. Three of the four types of silence were affected by either the self-construal variables or ethnicity. Relatively little research has been reported on the use of silence in conflict, and even less on culturally diverse marriages. These results demonstrate that culture affects the use of silence in marital conflict. With increasing numbers of intercultural marriages (Ting-Toomey, 1994), marriage counselors and social workers may become increasingly active in helping couples to negotiate marital conflict caused by cultural differences. Cultural values influence how spouses manage their marital conflict. In some cultures, individuals may consider face-to-face discussion of their thoughts and feelings with their spouses is an appropriate and constructive way to manage marital conflict. In other cultures, individuals may have preferred a silent way to manage their differences. Interventions need to notice strategies individuals use in explicit as well as implicit and verbal as well as nonverbal interchanges. Merely focusing on explicit verbal messages ignores signals significant for conflict resolution. This study found evidence that spouses use silence to control conflict and to protect one's own and other's self-image in marital conflict. This provides practical implications for clinical and empirical uses. Though this study suggests more questions, the findings can guide future researchers interested in examining this nonverbal dimension of conflict. Hopefully this study also helps individuals gain new insight to enhance their own options in approaching and managing conflict.


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Chuan-chuan Cheng, Tzu Chi University

Charles Tardy, University of Southern Mississippi

Correspondence to:

Dr. Chuan-chuan Cheng

Department of Communication Studies

Tzu Chi University

Hualien, Taiwan, ROC

Table 1. Pearson Scale Correlations

Variables 1 2 3 4

1. control
2. other .32 **
3. self .66 ** .35 **
4. harmony .51 ** .66 ** .53 **
5. independent -.01 .07 .06 .09
6. interdependent -.09 -.21 ** -.23 ** -.13
7. age .01 -.13 -.14 -.06
8. ethnicity .31 ** .05 .34 ** .13
9. education .14 -.04 .18 * .06
10. marriage -.04 -.12 -.13 -.06
11. gender -.06 .17 * -.04 .12
12. children -.05 -.07 -.17 * -.06

Variables 5 6 7 8

1. control
2. other
3. self
4. harmony
5. independent
6. interdependent .16
7. age .07 -.04
8. ethnicity .34 ** -.26 ** .15
9. education -.14 -.09 -.10 -.10
10. marriage .05 -.03 .89 ** .17 *
11. gender .06 .10 -.09 -.02
12. children -.12 .02 .46 ** -.02

Variables 9 10 11

1. control
2. other
3. self
4. harmony
5. independent
6. interdependent
7. age
8. ethnicity
9. education
10. marriage -.22 **
11. gender -.47 ** .07
12. children -.33 ** .54 ** .12

N = 146

** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).

* Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
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Author:Cheng, Chuan-chuan; Tardy, Charles
Publication:China Media Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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