Individual Versus Group

Individual versus Group

One big difference between Chinese society and Western society is the concept of individualism. While out West, we are encouraged to be our own person, and develop our own ways of thinking, this concept isn’t as pronounced in Chinese culture, which lean towards Confucian principles.

Testing in schools is usually based around exams with only a single, right answer for each question. How students fare in these tests tends to dictate what classroom they might be placed in, what level of school they can attend and possibly what jobs might be available for them when they graduate. As a result, parents tend to encourage their children to excel in subjects that require more linear thinking, as opposed to ones that require creativity.

Interactions between people is often governed by the relationship that defines them. An interaction between a boss and his employee would follow defined principles, as would one between a father and son, husband and wife or two friends. Status is accorded to elders or those with authority. One can build up their status through loyalty and giving face where appropriate. While Western culture might reward qualities such as creativity, innovation and aggression, Chinese society instead promotes modesty, loyalty and conciliation.

The lack of individualism can also be found in the tendency for Chinese people to keep their expressions to themselves and not be emotional in public situations. This is a trait that is taught from when children are young, which is why they often find novelty in the expressive nature of foreigners. People are encouraged to keep their opinions and expressions to themselves and not be too overt. When matters are being discussed in meetings, decisions are usually made by consensus, which have to followed afterwards, regardless of whether personal beliefs differ.

Individuals in China are also used to managing with much less personal space. Much of this is a direct result of living in highly populated areas, as well as in a tropical climate. Doors tend to be left open, even during classes or important meetings. When standing in line, you are expected to lean right up to the person in front of you to maintain your position. When parking a vehicle, a much smaller gap is left between vehicles than you might see out West.

As it is common for multiple generations of family members to live together, there is also much more closeness and interest in each others’ affairs. Neighbors tend to be a lot more “nosier” so expect a keen interest from others on where you happen to be going and coming from each day. Some of this lack of privacy is a direct result of strict government controls in mainland China. Everyone from security personnel and service attendants to the general public is taught to keep an eye out for suspicious activity and report it to the relevant authorities.

While Chinese society is certainly a lot more open in present day than it was in the past, a lot of these characteristics have ingrained themselves as part of culture. The increase in the numbers of foreign companies now operating in China has created more exposure among local Chinese to foreign methods and ways of thinking. However, those wanting to better integrate themselves into Chinese society can do well by understanding the roots and appreciating the values that govern people today.


Addressing People

Addressing People

While we’ve talked about names in Chinese before, it is important to know how to address people using the proper titles. While Westerners can generally be forgiving for not knowing the local customs, those that are able to follow the proper conventions correctly can receive a big edge when developing relationships.

Unlike English, the Chinese equivalents to “Mr” and “Mrs” – xiānshēng and tàitai follow the person’s last name. These two terms can also be used to refer to one’s husband and wife respectively. In Southern parts of China and Taiwan, these terms can also be used to address service people such as waiters, clerks and taxi drivers. In Northern parts of China, the term shīfu meaning “specialist” is used instead.

Where possible, it is advisable to find the person’s position and use it instead. Addressing someone as Wáng lǎoshī for “Teacher Wang” or Lǐ jīnglǐ for “Manager Li” shows them a lot more respect than a standard “Mr” or “Mrs.” It is also common practice to refer to someone with a definite position in the third person, using just their title and nothing else. If you’re shopping for goods, and are hoping for a good deal from the shop owner, referring to him as lǎobǎn for “boss” may gain you some favors.

Family relationship titles can be quite complicated. Traditionally, it was common for several generations of family members to live together, which meant it was important to accurately address each other. Family members are addressed differently based on whether they are older or younger than you, as well as whether the relationship is a paternal or maternal one. Close friends can also address each other as if they were in the same family. So a friend might refer to another friend as his older brother. This can also extend to a close friend’s family – where you address his relatives as if they were your own. This is similar to Western culture where a couple might affectionately be called Auntie and Uncle by younger generations.

Nicknames are also quite popular in Chinese culture. Two brothers surnamed Chén might be identified among friends as Lǎo Chén and Xiǎo Chén to indicate “younger Chen” and “older Chen” respectively. While in Western culture, it may be considered rude to directly refer to someone as old, in Chinese culture it is considered a sign of respect and refers more to the person’s wisdom and maturity than to their specific age.

While these rules about relationships may seem confusing on the outside, the best way to prepare yourself from uneasy situations is to observe others in action, and see what terms they use to address each other. To ensure that you use the right titles, it is also advisable to ask the opinions of others to make sure that you use the appropriate term.


Initial Chinese Interactions

Making Chinese Friends

One of the reasons many Westerners come to Asia, is their inherent curiosity in seeing Chinese people living and working in their native environment. Thankfully, this curiosity is also reciprocated with Chinese people being quite enthusiastic and friendly towards foreigners in general. The interest from locals is easily recognized by the stares you may get for being “foreign.” The farther away from big cities you go, the more attention you tend to get for being foreign.

Unless you happen to run into an outgoing type, the extent of your contact with most locals might be limited to stares. Knowing that there will be a communication gap is enough to keep most people from approaching you, so if you are interested in starting a conversation, being able to blurt out a few words in Chinese is very useful to break the ice and initiate contact.

Those of you who can speak some Chinese, may at times be disheartened to hear people reply to you in English, even when you address them in Chinese. While your initial reaction might be to construe this as a sign that your Chinese isn’t good enough, realize that just as you are using every opportunity you can find to practice what Chinese you know, they are using the same opportunity to practice their English. In general though, unless the situation is quite casual, it is best to stick to the language that allows the conversation to flow the smoothest.

If you do happen to enter a tough crowd, it is helpful to cite some common ground or a common acquaintance to elevate you from “stranger” status. Handshakes are accepted forms of greeting. You may also notice a slight bow of the head when greeting others. Where possible, try and carry business cards with you. When handing out a business card, use both hands to grasp the corners of the card and hand it so that the face can be read as it is being received. Depending on the nature of your business, it may be wise to have a bilingual version of your business card with the Chinese version on one side and the English version on the other.

During the initial small talk, apart from the obligatory “where do you come from?” you are likely to get questions regarding your experiences and impressions of China. This is because most locals within China tend to know very little about the world outside their borders (a phenomenon common in most countries), so their questioning tends to look for common ground with you, which is usually based within China. Because of this, their interest in you tends to be more as a result of your being “foreign” than because of your specific nationality.

During this interaction, it isn’t uncommon to be asked questions that you might deem to be quite personal, such as your age, marital status or even salary! If you choose not to answer these questions, be sure to do so in a way that doesn’t embarrass the person doing the asking. You can use the question topics brought up as a guideline for what questions you are allowed to ask in return. In general, the only major topic that should be avoided is politics, as that tends to be a sensitive issue for many. If you receive praise of any form, it is best to display outright modesty. This same phenomenon can be observed in their response, when you pay a compliment.

The safest way to manage these initial interactions is to spend a lot of time observing what others do, and how others respond. Notice their body language and try to mimic them when appropriate. While as a foreigner, you can be forgiven in most cases for not following traditional Chinese protocol, what efforts you do make to follow local customs can take you a long way towards developing proper contacts and relationships.


Confucian Culture

Confucian Culture

It is true that China is a much different place than it was a few decades ago. Advancements in communication and infrastructure have drawn China a lot closer to the Western world today, than in the past. As a result, one would expect Chinese people today to be a lot more tolerant towards Western attitudes and ideals, than they might have been in the past. While this is true, there are still patterns in daily Chinese behavior that can be traced back to centuries of ideology, that still form a significant basis in Chinese culture today. Understanding these ideals and perspective can go a long way towards improving your interactions with Chinese people.

Unlike in the West, where there is more of an emphasis towards individuality and creativity in expressing one’s self, in Chinese society there tends to be more emphasis towards conforming to society’s norms and traditions. These behaviors can be traced back to the days of Confucius, whose teachings and philosophy on social behavior have been compiled into written records, that have greatly influenced thought, even in modern times. As a result, since everyone is educated in his teachings which is used in society, there is a general pattern of what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable behavior when dealing with people.

This is why when traveling and meeting Chinese, you are rarely given choices as a guest. When eating out at a dinner in your honor, expect to see course after course being served on your plate without any regard for what your taste preference might be. Rather than you being treated as an individual, there is more reverence towards your position, which in this case is the guest. Similarly, expect to see designated seating around the table for the persons of most importance, based on their titles and positions within the gathering.

When you have the opportunity, it is worth noting some of the behaviors and habits that follow this philosophy. Introducing people to each other is key, since they form the start of relationships. If you lack a third party introduction, it is helpful to mention a common third party to elevate you from stranger status. Similarly, the questions asked of you during an initial conversation are usually used to form common ground between you. Unlike in Western culture, where people may become on first name basis after an initial meeting, in Chinese, a person’s title is almost always used, based on their relation to you.

In future blog postings, expect to see more examples of such cultural patterns, to better educate you with Chinese society. Being able to recognize and even reproduce this behavior on your own, can take you a long way towards not only forming the relationships you’ll need to make with Chinese people, but also to better equip you to understand why they do the things they do, in order to avoid potential mix ups.


Relationships and Face

Forming relationships is a key to Chinese business culture

When doing business in China, there are a couple of concepts worth noting that are extremely prevalent in Chinese culture. The first is guānxi, which is the art of building relationships. You will find after initially establishing contacts with people, that they will often go out of their way to help and provide you with whatever assistance you may need. This assistance forms a bond between people, which forms the basis for future relationships. Later, when ready to do business, it is common to use the network of relationships created from this process to begin.

These relationships are meant to be of mutual benefit and are useful for generating new business and clients, or as a source of knowledge and expertise. Examples may include one person getting another a job at his company, or a principal allowing someone’s child entrance into a prestigious school. While this concept may seem obvious and isn’t unique to Chinese culture, it’s certainly more prevalent in Chinese society and has ingrained itself as part of daily life. Indeed the expression méi guānxi, which is used to say “That’s okay” in response to an apology, is one of the most common phrases you might hear. The literal meaning can be thought of as meaning “this doesn’t affect our relationship.”

Closely related to guānxi is miànzi which is the concept of “face.” Many business relationships begin by doing personal favors for each other. The person doing the favor gains face or status in the process, while the recipient has an implied obligation to return the favor at some point. Meeting these obligations allows you to build up your network of relationships by gaining face. Choosing not to help when given the opportunity to do so, creates the opposite effect, resulting in your losing face, which should be avoided at all costs.

While it is important to do your best to accumulate as much face and the resulting prestige accorded with it as you can, it is equally important not to put others in positions where they are forced to lose face. Examples of such include trying to embarrass others in public, or putting people in positions where they have no solutions. In such situations, it is best to give the other party a “face saving option” which in turn builds your character for having accorded them that respect. For example, choosing not to accept a dinner invitation should be accompanied with a suitable excuse (along with the requisite apology) that shows your interest in the other party, allowing them to keep face.

Knowledge of these concepts is important not only in business, but also in daily life in China. Unlike the West, where you might make a public scene to get what you want, doing so in China will ostracize you, resulting in the opposite effect. While the Chinese are increasingly more tolerant of Western mannerisms and traditions, respect of local etiquette is a great way to stand out from the crowd, by showing your willingness to do things their way.