The spiral of silence was formulated by Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann (1984) to explain why people prefer keeping their opinions to themselves for fear of reprisal or isolation. Her main goal was to identify the reasons why many people tend to conform to their perceived public opinion, even though they do not share it. In her main work,
“The spiral of silence. A theory of public opinion – Our social skin” (Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, 1984), the German political scientist talks about the election eve of 1965 and shows how easy it is to influence people’s actions. During an election party organised by ZDF, a popular television network, Noelle-Neumann wrote the data she had collected on a board: the Christian Democratic and Social Union was at 49.5% and the Social Democratic Party at 38.5%. At the sight of these figures, everybody in the hall was surprised. Noelle-Neumann established a successful public opinion research institute in partnership with her husband in 1974 and, even before that, the political scientist knew a lot about dominant opinion and fear of isolation.
So, why did everybody find that data so shocking? Simply because Noelle-Neumann’s research institute had been asserting that the election was neck to neck until that moment, which obviously was a complete lie. But the real question is, did that lie influence public opinion?
Just a few days early, Noelle-Neumann had released an interview, declaring that she would have not been surprised if the Social Democrats (who were actually losing) won.
During that evening, results kept moving closer and closer to the predictions made by the Allensbach Institute and that showed quite clearly that public opinion had been influenced.
If something as irrelevant as a lie can sway one’s opinion, it is just natural that an individual’s cultural background and upbringing do not simply influence their judgement, they determine it, especially when it comes to cultures, such as the Chinese one, which have been marked by powerful ideologies.
Because public opinion is an extremely complex concept that implies numerous forces and variables which might affect it, Noelle-Neumann spent years studying people’s innate ability to gauge the prevailing public opinion. The concept of public opinion has also captured the special attention of many thinkers and philosophers over the last few centuries.
To be more precise, the expression “public opinion” derives from the French term “l’opinion publique” and made its first appearance in the English language in the 18th century.
French philosopher Montaigne (1958) was the first who studied the dynamics that determine public opinion, explaining how important it had become. In the 16th century, in fact, urban areas were expanding all across Europe, causing many people to move from rural areas to actual towns, hoping to find more job opportunities and benefit from a higher quality of life.
Michel de Montaigne observed that the urbanisation process that was taking place in Europe at that time, led to the rise and growth of a new kind of society, based on institutions, political forces and, last but not least, on what people thought.
Adam Smith (1776) is mainly known as the founder of free-market economics, however, just like the authors mentioned so far, he too spent several years of his life meditating on the power of public opinion, as far as political philosophy is concerned. Adam Smith, in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, maintains that public opinion can create a prejudice that impacts political philosophy, which, in turn, can move people beyond their wrong beliefs.
Because public opinion is so instable, it is crucial that politicians, thinkers and philosophers alike should be very careful when approaching it.
Smith held that the best approach to political discussion and public opinion should involve a willingness to respect, understand and meditate on the surrounding views. Extreme views are usually rejected by the public, which is why political figures should strive to keep their radical belies to themselves and make of prudence, moderation and tolerance the pivotal points of their election campaigns. Is this fair? Probably not. But obscuring, hiding, tempering and concealing radical beliefs is essential if one wants to “conquer” the public.
As Henderson (2006) correctly inferred from Smith’s statements, the Scottish philosopher aimed at teaching politicians how to be polite and moderate in order to capture their audience’s sympathy.
English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1789) is mainly known for having advocated utilitarianism, a philosophical trend according to which the moral worth of an action is defined by its usefulness. In other words, he maintained that the right action is that which causes the greatest good for the greatest amount of people (Rosen, F. 2003) and he also opined that the scope of public opinion is to ensure that political leaders rule in order to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest people.
China has been a family-run country for many centuries, being based on agriculture, an activity that involves a group of people working together to achieve pretty much the same goals.
The family is not only an group of people united by consanguinity, but also an institution which is “collectivist in nature”, for it consists of at least two members who have ambitions, cooperate and depend on each other to fulfil them.
Chinese people have always put great importance on family and collective goals, mainly because nearly all of them descend from farmers and many of them still work in rural environments.
When Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, he prompted and forced people to work in collectivist communes as to get rid of landowners and other individualistic figures which contrasted with the communist system he was trying to establish. So doing, he reinforced that collectivist view of life, economy, society and work that the Chinese had always had. (Karl, E. R., 2010)
However, as Frank Gallo (2010) correctly pointed out, China is slowly abandoning its collectivist mindset, mainly due to the its recent entry into the World Trade Organization, thanks to which many western companies are now investing their capitals, manufacturing their products and offering their services in China. ³
As a consequence of that, Chinese people are now experiencing the western lifestyle and becoming familiar with the typical European and American mentality, which is focussed on the individual and their needs.
In this regard, Gallo (2010) reports an interesting case which shows the differences between collectivist and individualistic thinking. Chinese and American partners were working together at Lenovo, one of the greatest Chinese multinationals. While the Americans started looking for individual high performers straight away, the Chinese considered the team as they key to the company’s success. It is evident that the American and Chinese partners had very different views as to how a business should be run.
The truth is that, despite western influences, China is still a collectivist country, which, according to Wei Weng (2006) can be considered as a strength and a weakness at the same time, in the sense that foreign investors can take advantage of this fact and increase their profits.
However, if we consider young Chinese students living abroad, especially in the United Kingdom, we will find that most of them are driven, money motivated and willing to succeed as “individuals” and not as part of larger groups. One of the reasons why their families have prompted to study abroad, in fact, is because they want them to follow and fulfil their dreams and stand out in today’s competitive world of business.
The spiral of silence is a theory that combines both qualitative and quantitative elements, as in order to identify the dominant opinion to which the minority conforms, the researcher has to resort to empirical methods which will allow them to collect data which they can analyse using qualitative methods.
Unlike quantitative research, whose objective is to investigate and measure phenomena by means of mathematical models and quantitative research tools, such as surveys and questionnaires, qualitative research investigates the reasons why people make certain decisions.
Since the present research centres around the behavioural differences between Chinese students who have migrated or were born in the UK, who are also referred to as “British Chinese” and English students when they feel that they are in the minority, a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods is necessary in order to gather useful information that will support and validate the conclusions that will be drawn from the empirical data collected.
Whilst analysing the data collected, it is crucial that not only cultural variables, but also temperamental features should be taken into account, as despite their background and upbringing, people’s experiences and personalities have a significant impact on their mental processes.
According to the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1853), the scientific method is the most effective approach to understanding the causes of phenomena and the processes by which they occur. When Comte explained what positivism is in The Course in Positive Philosophy (Comte, A., 1853), he also theorised a method through which unbiased data can be collected and analysed in such a way to draw reliable conclusions from it.
According to Comte, once data is gathered, the researcher should carry out as many experiments as possible to verify the validity of each “datum”. So doing, all the data that is found to be biased, vague and abstract will be eliminated and the researcher will be able to work on a certain amount of reliable data from which they can draw precise, concrete and “positive” conclusions. As explained in The Course in Positive Philosophy (Comte, A., 1853), the positive state is the state every human should aim for, as every phenomenon has a logical and scientific explanation, which should have nothing to do with stories of gods or superstition.
Being Comte the father of sociology, his epistemological approach is often used in social sciences, such as psychology, economics and politics.
According to him, research consists of three stages: hypothesis formulation, experimentation or testing and statement development. Deductive logic is the tool that the researcher should use to test the data gathered to prove the hypothesis/hypotheses either right or wrong.
All the modern research instruments companies and individuals resort to survey a certain sample of individuals use Comte’s positivist approach, as they allow the researcher to collect data, make deductions, test them and formulate a thesis.
Over the course of his successful career, Sigmund Freud, also known as the father of psychoanalysis, studied the human psyche and attempted to describe the mechanisms that dominate it, determining the way we think and act. Among the various concepts introduced by Freud, noteworthy is that of anxiety, which, however, he did not mean to him what it means to us.
In English, anxiety is a feeling of unease, nervousness or worry about something whose outcome is unknown to the subject. (Soanes, C., Stevenson, A. 2008)
On the other hand, Freud intended anxiety as a feeling of fear that influences our actions, as well as our thinking process. (Chapman, C. N., 2007)
When Noelle-Neumann (1974) illustrated the spiral of silence, she explained that when people feel that their views are in the minority, they tend to conceal them for fear of reprisal and/or isolation.
As pointed out by Dr. C. George Boeree (1997), the ego or “I” sits right at the centre of the superego and the id, which sometimes disagrees with the first and makes contradictory demands upon the “I”. When this happens, the “I” feels overwhelmed and “anxious”. Anxiety, or fear, can be compared to an alarm system which notifies us when our survival is in jeopardy. Despite being an unpleasant feeling, anxiety is necessary as it prompts us to be extra careful in dangerous situations.
Dr. C. George Boeree (1997) also focussed on the three types of anxiety identified by Freud, each of which happens to represent one of the main reasons why, according to Noelle-Neumann (1974) we keep our thoughts to ourselves when we sense that they might contrast with the dominant opinion.
The first type of anxiety is realistic anxiety, or fear. Should we find ourselves surrounded by poisonous snakes, it is realistic anxiety we would experience, thus fear.
There is, then, moral anxiety. When our actions or thoughts do not comply with the social world we have built within our superego, we feel inadequate and guilty. Therefore, moral anxiety can be compared to shame, guilt and all those feelings that stem from the fear of being punished.
The last type of anxiety is neurotic anxiety. People experience neurotic anxiety when they feel like they might lose control or even their mind. This overwhelming feeling can be compared to nervousness; in fact, neurotic comes from Latin “nervosus” (m., s.), which means “nervous”, “neurotic”. In other words, by neurotic anxiety, Freud meant nervousness and anxiety.
Out of all the forms of anxiety that have been discovered and studied, decision and choice anxiety is perhaps the most underrated one, even though it is one of the reasons why people who have been raised in collectivist societies, where people are not used to making life changing decisions as it is the group or the community that makes “the best possible decisions” for them, are more likely to experience it.
In fact, as observed by Triandis, Harry C. and Gelfand, Michele J. (1998), who have spent years studying the differences between horizontal and vertical collectivism, people who live or were brought up in horizontal collectivist societies, believe in equality and cooperation, whereas vertical collectivism is based on the simple concept that some people are more important than other people, therefore the latter should be willing to sacrifice themselves if ordered to.
Many studies have been conducted to allow companies and individuals to understand what communication patterns and styles are dominant in collectivist societies (de Mooij, 1998; Han & Shavitt, 1994), however, generalising on such delicate matters can not but lead to grave mistakes which might jeopardise a company’s success or mislead public opinion, as every culture is dynamic and consists of different individuals whose views might contrast with the ones of those around them. This conflict is the very source of the great deal of attention China has been drawing upon itself ever since it entered the WTO in 2001. (ChinaDaily, 2006)
In fact, contrary to common belief, Triandis (1995) reported that people form their characters and opinions from collectivistic and individualistic mental structures alike, depending on the circumstances. Hence, stating that every Chinese is a collectivist and that every Brit is an individualist is wrong, as so inaccurate a statement would result in a prejudiced and biased thesis.
Dutta-Bergman and Wells (2002) conducted numerous studies on individualism and collectivism co-existing within the same culture and demonstrated that cross-cultural psychology should abandon the prejudices that have been formed over the years and focus on the fact that individualism and collectivism might actually be both part of a culture.
In 1620, Francis Bacon, an English politician and philosopher, published his masterpiece “Novum Organum”, which in Latin means “New Instrument”. The book explains what the new scientific method is and how natural phenomena can be investigated, as to formulate undeniable and unquestionable theses on the basis of the data analysed by the scientist. Bacon’s scientific method is strictly based on experimental research: the scientist must use three tables where he will take notes. If, for example, a scientist was to research the causes of heat, the first table would consist of a list of all the situations and cases where heat is found; the second table would list all the situations and cases where heat is not found and the third table would report situations in which heat varies.
The Baconian method is an excellent way to gather useful information for analysis, which is why it will be used as the starting point for the present study. In fact, the following step will be to draw three tables where, during each questionnaire, the interviewer will be able to note down their observations. The data collection phase will be divided into three stages. At the first stage, the interviewer will use the first table and note down how students react when they pretend to share their views. At the second stage, the interviewer will show disagreement and fill out the second table accordingly. At the third and final stage, the interviewer will remain neutral and observe whether students find it easy or not to express their opinions and note down any variations, along the lines of Bacon’s scientific method.
Even though the Baconian method is an excellent tool to collect data, the “Novum Organum” was meant for the study of natural phenomena, whereas the present study focuses on the cultural variables and the psychological mechanisms that hinder people from voicing their opinions in certain situations.
According to Kohut (1997), one of the best ways to make someone feel comfortable and at ease, especially under stressful circumstances, is to mirror their body language. At the first stage of the data collection process, which shall be referred to as “the positive stage”, the interviewees’ answers and mood will be influenced by the interviewer, who will mirror their body language, nod and smile as to make them feel understood.
At the second stage, which shall be labelled as “negative”, the interviewer will not mirror the students’ body language and frown at them. So doing, the interviewees will understand that the interviewer does not agree with them, allowing him to see under what circumstances the spiral of silence occurs and whether it impacts people’s willingness to speak their mind.
The last stage, which will be referred to as “neutral”, is the stage where the interviewer will do absolutely nothing to sway the students in any way and any variations will be reported in the third table.
With regards to participants, these will be recruited from an online community of UK University and college students. For the questionnaire to produce pertinent results, two groups will be formed: one group consisting of Chinese students living in the UK, both female and male, and another group consisting of British students living in the UK, both female and male.
The operational stage of the research will begin as soon as fifty students matching the aforementioned requirements respond to the invitation.
Before analysing the results produced by the face-to-face questionnaire that has been used to gather useful data pertinent to the present study, it should be specified that the conclusions drawn from the data presented in the previous paragraph do not extend to the entire Chinese population, nor to the entire Chinese community based in the UK.
That is because, as Bhugra D. and Becker M.A. (2005) correctly pointed out, migration can and should be classified in more than one way. The nature and features of migrants vary, depending on the reasons why they have migrated. A person who migrates because forced to will not integrate in the host culture as well and as quickly as a person who migrated for educational purposes, as it is obvious that those Chinese who move to the UK to pursue their academic studies, do so in order to familiarise with a new culture, grow as people, become fluent in a second language and, sometimes, in order to find a job in the UK, be it because they want to live a new experience or because they feel like they would fit better in an individualistic society than in a collectivist one, like the one they come from.
However, it is important to keep in mind that China is very different from other countries where political collectivism is dominant. In fact, while collectivist countries place group goals before individual goals, Chinese people seem to behave more like ordinary American and European businesspeople, when it comes to their jobs, in the sense that they are very ambitious and do not mind bribing academic institutions to get high scores and graduate in order to gain access to well-paid jobs. Bribery and plagiarism are, in fact, becoming very common practices in China. (Marquand, R., 2006)
According to journalist Tony Karon (2011), not only has China absorbed America’s capitalistic system, it also does capitalism better than most western governments. It is quite ironical that the U.S., which are currently governed by the Democratic Party, do not seem to be handling capitalism’s crisis as efficiently as China, which, on the other hand, is ruled by the Communist Party.
Returning to the cultural differences between Chinese and British people studying in the UK, many interesting aspects, which even Huang did not highlight in the course of his research, have emerged from the present research.
Huang’s telephone survey revealed that people who live in collectivist societies are more likely to keep their thoughts to themselves in order to maintain social harmony and avoid conflicts, whereas individualistic societies, being based on personal fulfilment and goal achievement, are made up if individuals who are used to competing and coming into conflict with other individuals, in order to assert themselves.
The present study, however, does not simply compare two different cultures, as half of the students who have been interviewed were not simply Chinese young people raised in a collectivist society; they were British Chinese, which means Chinese people who have either been raised in or have moved to the UK.
Living and studying in the UK, these people have had to find a way to co-exist with a culture that is completely different from that of their ancestors’.
Bhugra D. and Becker M.A. (2005) observed that while migration is sure to contribute to the richness of a country’s cultural diversity, it also has a great impact on people’s mental well being. Migration, in fact, can lead to the loss of traditions, cultural norms and even religious beliefs, as a consequence of the individual’s attempt to adjust to a new culture.
Bhungra D. and Becker M. A. (2005)’s theories summarise quite well the results produced by the present study.
In fact, from the answers given by the fifty students that have been interviewed, it emerged that despite being more condescending under stressful circumstances, British Chinese students are almost as confident and assertive as British students. Even though Huang (2005)’s study revealed that people who live in collectivist societies, like the Taiwanese, are less likely to voice their opinions when they feel like they are in the minority, the results produced by the present study do not contradict or questioning Huang (2005)’s observations in any way, as all of the Chinese students who have been interviewed have either been raised in or moved to the UK, which means that during the years they have lived in the UK, they have adjusted to the British culture, which, similarly to the American culture, revolves around the individual and their expectations, needs and ambitions. Therefore, in such cultures, individual goals are deemed more important than group goals.
In light of the students’ answers which have been entered in the three tables that can be found at the bottom of the present paper (see APPENDIX 1, 2, 3), it is evident that British Chinese students tend to remain silent only when they are not familiar with a topic and, according to Huang, this particular feature is typical of American citizens, thus people who were raised in collectivist societies.
Moreover, the findings show that while British students are confident in expressing their opinions, without seeming to worry about their interlocutor’s opinions, Chinese students are more careful and less bold than the first, as if they did not want to say something that might offend or embarrass their interlocutor in any way.
As can be seen from table B (APPENDIX 3), in fact, when the interviewer shook their head and frowned upon the students as to make them understand that they did not agree with what they were saying, unlike British students, Chinese students have noticed the signs the interviewer was sending and interpreted them as signs of disagreement. Not to risk coming into conflict with the interviewer, they first tried to understand what their opinions could possibly be and, while doing that, they showed signs of embarrassment; after that, they attempted to give as diplomatic answers as possible, without taking any sides or sounding too firm or aggressive when stating their opinions.
When asked questions about the relationship between China and western countries, none of the interviewed Chinese students complained about the way they are treated in the UK and showed signs of insecurity or embarrassment when asked about the currency policy adopted by President Hu Jintao, probably because aware of the complaints made by President Barack Obama as well as European governments regarding his refusal to let the Yuan become a market-determined currency. (Spetalnik, M. and Buckley, C., 2011)
As reported by Aziz, E. A. (2005), who attempted to discover whether and to what extent globalisation and the many changes the largest cities in China have undergone have affected Chinese people’s politeness and good manners, the new generations, despite the westernisation process that is currently occurring in the most industrialised cities, still strive to avoid coming into conflict with their interlocutors.
Even though the present study has to do with the spiral of silence and how people behave when they sense that the dominant opinion is different from theirs, a deep analysis of how Chinese and British students behave both when their opinions are shared by their interlocutor and when their interlocutor subtly contradicts them can certainly lead to an understanding of how they would react if they believed that the majority of people thought the same as their interlocutor, even though it is highly likely that their reactions might slightly vary in strength and intensity.
Returning to Table B and C (APPENDICES 3, 4), these two charts present some very interesting data. Questionnaires B and C (APPENDIX 1: b, c) were specifically designed to provoke both Chinese and British interviewees, being centred on critical topics, such as politics and religion.
Unlike gossip and music, in fact, these topics have always divided not only individuals or small groups of people, but also entire nations, to the extent of causing political tensions and even wars.
In this regard, biologist and zoologist Richard Dawkins (2007), maintains that the reason why people become aggressive to the extent that they might kill their “enemies” in the name of their religion is because religion gives a certainty and all human beings need certainties to feel safe and secure. That is why people literally “switch” when these certainties are threatened. Same applies to politics, which also represents what people believe in.
Now, questionnaires B and C were designed to prompt British students to criticise the Chinese government and complain about its policies and, when they did, the interviewer subtly made them understand that he did not concord with them.
Eight out of twenty-five British students responded to the interviewer’s provocations showing signs of hostility, whereas only one Chinese student seemed annoyed at the interviewer’s facial expressions and showed signs of hostility.
As Scheufle1 D. A. and Moy1 P. (1994) observed, many researchers have attempted to explain how the spiral of silence works, however, most of them have forgotten to consider some very important variables which may greatly affect how people gauge and predict public opinion.
Scheufle1 D. A. and Moy1 P. (1994) were obviously referring to cross-cultural studies, which present numerous variations and exceptions to Noelle-Neumann’s theory.
In fact, cross-cultural studies should take account of those apparently minor factors, such as religion, history, culture, education, mass media activity and economy which might help researchers make more accurate predictions as to how people will respond to certain stimuli.
Now, the present research partly confirms Huang’s theory, as it is evident that Chinese people who, similarly to Taiwanese people, have a collectivist background, tend to be more condescending, also when contradicted, as opposed to Brits who, similarly to Americans, have a tendency to express their opinions more confidently and assertively, regardless of what those around them might think.
However, there is a subtle, yet major factor, which should be highlighted.
The reason why the present study focussed on students is because young people are more likely to adjust to new cultures and changes in general and, since today’s youth represents our future, an analysis of how young people adapt to different circumstances and speak their mind, even when they believe that they are in the minority can help predict whether and to what extent the spiral of silence will contribute to forming public opinion, five, ten or even twenty years from now.
According to Huang (2005), people who were raised and live in collectivist societies are unwilling to speak out when in the minority; however, all the students that have been selected for the present research study and live in the UK, which means that, n spite of their upbringing, family traditions and origins, they all live in a society which values self-reliance, ambition, independence and self-fulfilment. (Brown, S. L., 1993)
In fact, Table A (APPENDIX 2) reports that twenty-one out of twenty-five Chinese students answered assertively. This figure fell to four when students were made believe that their opinions were not appreciated by the interviewer and rose to ten when asked to answer critical questions on politics.
Seeing as Questionnaire C (APPENDIX 1: c) was specifically designed to stress both British and Chinese students, it is surprising how Chinese students, who were expected to give diplomatic answers, were very confident and assertive in stating their opinions.
It is evident that British Chinese students, despite being more condescending and obliging than British ones, have assimilated the tenets of individualism and are not afraid of being isolated, criticised or punished for speaking their mind, whereas collectivist societies, especially the ones that have been somehow influenced by communism or are still ruled by communist parties, like the People’s Republic of China, which is still governed by a single party known for its Marxist-inspired visions, tend to support the spiral of silence, mainly for fear of reprisal and isolation.
However, it should be clarified that fear is not the only reason why people who live in collectivist societies withhold their opinions. In fact, these people place great importance on collective harmony and are willing to keep their thoughts to themselves in order to preserve it. In other words, they see the spiral of silence as a form of respect and altruism, whilst verbally expressing disagreement is a clear sign of selfishness and disrespect. (Verstappen, S. H., 2008)
Differently from Huang (2005)’s cross cultural test, the present study does not simply focus on two different cultures: it draws a c
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