Cultural differences

A quiz

Here is a typical example to test your cultural sensitivity:


Scenario: You come across a Chinese friend on the street in China. He asks: "Have you eaten yet?"

Question: What would you respond if you happen not eaten yet?


The point is not what you answer the question, but how you interpret it. "Have you eaten yet?" is a common greetings in China, similar to "How are you?" If you were serious about the surface meaning of the words and expected his inviting you for dinner, there could be an embarrassing situation.


Communication is about perception

How can people from different cultures communicate effectively in order to achieve mutual goals? It indeed depends on how well we interpret others' behavior and on how well we beware how our own behavior is being interpreted; it's all about perception. Essentially, we tend to view others in our own terms, reflected in activity, self view, and social relation.


Updated note. Globalization is an amazing thing; it has helped narrowing the cultural differences, call it "culture blending". Chinese people, especially the youth, are influenced by and become more and more adapting to Western culture; likewise, people in the West are adopting some of the ways how the rest of world think and do business. So some discussions below may no longer be practically correct, but can still be reference nonetheless.


Differences in activities

Compared to western countries such as the United States, China is relatively less-developed. There is lack of means and techniques in planning, executing, and evaluating in activity in China. Rather than seeing different things, however, there are occasions where westerners and Chinese are seeing things differently, which in turn have different implications in business. 


One aspect is that westerners and Chinese have different views of life-goals. While both strive for wealth, Chinese stress "looking good", or "having face"; westerners emphasize material goals and comfort. An implication is that you should not criticize Chinese (especially the leaders) in public even though it is a common practice in countries like US.


Another observation is that, in decision-making process, it is the group in China, not the individuals who are involved (like in U.S.), who bears the responsibility. Moreover, sometimes there is a separation between who makes decision and who takes responsibility. Usually, It is the leader who has the the authority who makes decision; while it is the group that carries out the plan who take the responsibility. The implication? Pay attention to the persons who have the authority during the negotiation; and rely on the group who bear the responsibility on execution.


Western businesspeople have often been frustrated by this "no-person responsible" structure. Suppose you spent a lot of time and efforts on negotiation with someone and reach some agreement by the end. Thinking you've done the job, you would be upset when you realized that it only meant you could talk to someone in higher level. This is not uncommon, given the incomplete business laws and lack of guidance for corporate practice; or if there are any guidelines, few people follow them. What can you do about it? Well, there is the good side of this system. The negotiation may be frustrated, follow through can be easy once you are trusted by your Chinese counterpart. That's one of the reasons why building relationship is important; so earn trust first, do business later, which is actually next topic.


Differences in Perception of Self and Individual

In short, Chinese culture is collective-oriented, while the American individual-oriented. The tight Chinese family bond is a good illustration. It is commonly seen that three or four generations are living together in a Chinese family. Family members are obligated to look after each other, especially to the elderly. The extension of this tradition to business is the belief that organizations would take care of their employees. Observably, many corporations have their own apartments, restaurants, hospitals, schools. Chinese enterprises seem tend to integrate rather than to outsource their operations.


In contrast, westerners satisfy loose personal relationships and are less reliant to each other; instead, everybody is on his own. In the eyes of Chinese, "America is the heaven for children, the battlefield for youth, and the grave for elderly." In business setting, it may mean Americans are short-term oriented ("live for today") while Chinese long-term ("save for the future").




  • Spending time and effort to build relationships. Chinese usually do not trust strangers (well, few do). Therefore, you should be patient enough on building personal relationship with your Chinese friends, especially those who have authority, and strike hard to show your "belonging" to them. To illustrate it in a more understanding way, in contrast to Americans' two-level relationship--separate business and personal relationships, it's one-level in China. So, show your interest in family, education, and other matters that may not related to your business. 

    Again, relation is business. Once you become an "insider", you would be treated well.
  • Using an intermediary. The purpose is two-fold. For one, the intermediary helps you establish relationship with Chinese. For another, it avoids "loose face" if things are not going well.
  • Respecting status (title and age). Chinese traditionally place much emphasis on proper etiquette. If your Chinese counterpart has a title, call him or her with the title. Otherwise, call them with Mr. or Ms. If your counterpart is a elderly, send someone old to deal with him or her. This is probably one of the few situations where youthfulness is not necessary an advantage.


Differences in Social Relations

Confucian philosophy is still a major force in Chinese culture. In particular, harmony is relevant to interpersonal behavior. The principle of harmony reflects an aspiration toward a conflict-free, group-based system of social relation. This principle has not been significantly challenged by modern Chinese ideologies.

Another tenet of Confucian philosophy holds that social consensus is vital for the functioning of the society. It is not surprised since consensus is important in communication and decision making and regulates the relationships between individuals. 


It is the underlying belief among Chinese that human heartiness, righteousness and harmony, along with the rituals of etiquette and ceremony as taught by Confucius are the proper base for all business relationships. This observation provides a link between the two major elements in the concept of aesthetics, harmony and form, which may be too confused to be detailed further.