When it comes to etiquette and ways of doing things, there are some key differences between how the Chinese operate versus how Westerners do so. In the latter world, being polite makes you stand out from the crowd. In the Chinese world, politeness is part of a basic set of principles that has to be followed by all. Any deviation from these principles makes you stand out in a negative way. You can see this when you are offered a choice of drink before a meeting or when visiting someone’s house. Even if you politely decline, you will still be offered tea as the default. As the guest, you are allowed to sit through the entire visit without even touching the cup, since the host was just doing his duty by offering it to you, despite your personal preference to decline.
During group meetings, a Westerner is more likely to bring up arguments or disagree with the topic at hand. Chinese values would require the person to keep his opinions to himself in such an environments. Any disagreements he may have with a speaker could be brought up later in a more private forum, giving the speaker face in the process. Understanding this nature within Chinese people is important, since it is easy to otherwise assume that their silence indicates agreement. In some cases, a third party may be used to convey negative news from one side to another, in order to avoid confrontations.
This same situation can also be observed in personal relationships between a Westerner and a Chinese, where the latter’s silence on matters and propensity to not confront, could erroneously suggest to the former that all is well in the relationship, when that might not be the case. (Personal note: I have experienced this first hand, when a former girlfriend broke up with me out of the blue, when I thought all was well. When I asked for more details, she came up with a list of issues that she had never mentioned during the relationship, all out of a desire to not induce confrontation). Not being up front with your opinions and ideas might be considered rude in Western culture, whereas in Chinese culture it is considered polite, since by doing so they are allowing you to save face.
Another big difference in thinking between Chinese and Western societies is the difference between “friends” and “strangers.” Assistance between Chinese parties is only given to those in the “inner circle” which is why the concept of guanxi is so important. This is also why it is so important to keep making contacts in order to enter the circles of others. The flip side of this, is that help is rarely given to strangers or people without any relationship. You rarely see beggars on the streets in Chinese communities, and those you do see are usually seen approaching foreigners, whome they are more likely to get assistance from. It is also common for people to not stop and help others during vehicle accidents, so as not to get involved with people they don’t know.
Where a Chinese person does assist one of his friends (whether directly or indirectly), this assistance is noted by both sides. An equivalent payback of some sorts is then expected in the future. During weddings and occasions where red envelopes are exchanged, the amounts of money given and the donors are duly noted since the same amount would be expected to be paid back at future events. Chinese New Year (which is coming up soon) is useful for clearing “debts” among friends in this manner.
The conclusion from all of this, when comparing Chinese versus their Western counterparts, is that the former are more likely to go out of their way to help friends and people in their circle of influence, whereas the latter are more likely to go out and help strangers. Understanding this culture is very valuable in determining where assistance should be given to others, as well as what is expected of you if you receive it. When rejecting others’ offers or requests of help, it is best to do so with a polite excuse rather than a flat out refusal, in order to maintain the dignity of the relationship.