Terms of Address in the Chinese Business Enterprise

Xiaoyan Huang, Robert Sultan


This study examines terms of address currently used by employees of Chinese business enterprises. The authors find that a speaker’s address selections are related significantly to the gender of the speaker, the location of the enterprise in Eastern or Western China, and the ownership type of the enterprise; that is, whether the enterprise is state-owned or privately owned.  The authors develop hypotheses to explain the social origins of these observations.  It is also observed that the semantics of address in the enterprise persist across changes in underlying terminology and are resilient with respect to mandated speech.  In examining this subject of persistence, the authors find that the term ‘gē/jiě (brother/sister) has replaced the term ‘tóngzhì’ (comrade) as the primary means of expressing solidarity within the business enterprise.  The authors consider the question of whether address choices can be predicted based on externally observable situations or whether such choices require knowledge of the speaker’s motivations, which are not externally observable.  It is concluded that address is most predictable in situations where power is salient and less predictable in other situations.   

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