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.