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The Power of Framing Abroad: Dr. Fairhurst Experiences China

Written by Dr. Gail Fairhurst, a Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati

This past Spring, I was invited to speak to communication and business students at three Chinese universities in Henan Province, located in central China. The purpose of my trip was to introduce university students and professors to my 2011 book, The Power of Framing: Challenging the Language of Leadership. Yujia (Veronica) Guo, a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma, is translating my book into Mandarin for The Elephant Press. She also graciously translated my talks, which you can see from the photo.

In case you were wondering, there are many communication majors in Henan Province’s three major universities, although their focus is mass communication and journalism. Organizational communication is not a particular focus unlike U.C. and other schools throughout the United States. Nevertheless, students volunteered many examples of framing in their everyday lives during my lectures. One lecture was particularly memorable, however.

When a student started to give an example of political framing by a well-known Chinese leader, many in the audience pressured him to refrain from doing so. It wasn’t clear to me what exactly their concerns were, whether it was fear of the government, making a bad impression on a visitor from the U.S. or a little of both.

Fortunately, Veronica intervened and introduced a few examples of good and bad framing by Chinese business leaders. This did not seem to upset the students. I was certainly struck by the differences between these Chinese students and my own who readily offer examples—and opinions—of framing by U.S. political and business leaders. It reminded me of what we take for granted living in the United States.

But there are so many changes in Chinese society, who knows what the future may hold? Along with my traveling companions (my husband, Verne, University of Oklahoma’s Dr. Michael Kramer, his wife, Carla, and Dr. Sunny Kim), we had the opportunity to observe many instances of both “new” and “old” China. “New China” surfaced in massive building projects with skyscrapers, enthusiasm for the very latest in technology, a sometimes-playful disregard of the rules, and a strong appetite for catching up with the West. (I was very surprised to see English on road signs and license plates!)

We delighted in seeing “old China” in the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, the Chinese Buddhist art of Longmen Grottoes, and Shaolin Monastery (home of the Shaolin school of Buddhism and Kung Fu martial arts training) of Zhengzhou, among others. We left with a sense of awe over the Chinese societies of 1500-2000 years ago.

Perhaps my most enduring impression of my visit to China is the warmth and hospitality of the Chinese people we met. At every turn, our Chinese hosts were solicitous and incredibly generous. The university presidents, provosts, deans and department heads offered me the “guest of honor” seat at every meal, toasted all of us roundly, made Michael, Sunnny and I honorary professors, and offered us visiting professorships at each school—not to mention gifting us with so many beautiful items that we had to buy a suitcase to carry them all home! Veronica’s father, a deputy minister of Henan Province, and mother were behind much of this planning and they, too, fêted us with wonderful meals and gifts. It was really the trip of a lifetime, one I will not soon forget.

Gail Fairhurst is a Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati. Her areas of interest are organizational communication, leadership, and organizational discourse analysis. Prof. Fairhurst studies leadership with a lens that is more social, cultural, and discourse-based than that of leadership psychology. Her work with practitioners is in the area of framing, which focuses on the creation of meaning through dialogue. Her past research has centered on sensemaking during times of organizational change, downsizing, organizational culture, leader-member relationships, cross-cultural management, executive coaching, and male and female communication styles. She is a Fellow of the International Communication Association and a National Communication Association Distinguished Scholar.


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