For the questions below, please note that several answers are possible.

The concept of ‘Face’ (or Miàn zi (面子) is very important in China, as in many Asian countries. ‘Face’ represents a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige within multiple spheres, including the workplace, the family, personal friends, and society at large. In this case, in order to protect her American boss’s ‘face’, the Chinese employee did not directly refuse the boss’s assignment but used many excuses to make him realize that she can’t make it. Or, she might want her boss to say the word ‘No’ to her.

In Chinese literature, the last sentence in a paragraph or the last paragraph in the whole text are the most critical parts because they normally tell the central idea. Educated in this way, when writing, most Chinese are used to expressing their opinions or telling their final decisions in the end. Nevertheless, it usually is the contrary in American literature and writing style. The latter part of the email from the Chinese employee was where her decision to the project offer was. However, for the American boss, the most important sentence was the first and therefore he thought she accepted to take on the project.

High-context culture and the contrasting low-context culture are terms presented by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall. High context implies that a lot of unspoken information is implicitly transferred during communication (such as in Chinese culture), while low context implies that a lot of information is exchanged explicitly through the message itself and rarely is anything implicit or hidden (like in the USA). In this case, the Chinese employee did not say ‘no’ directly though it was implied (implicitly) through her use of excuses. The American boss failed to understand the implicit idea behind the words and therefore considered that she accepted the job. Therefore, the communication problems linked to high and low context cultural differences caused this misunderstanding.

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