Introduction to Chinese Culture
The world’s most populous country, a nuclear power, site of some of history’s greatest inventions, thousands of years of unbroken civilization, immeasurable cultural influence, space exploration: it is not suprising that the Chinese feel that their national destiny is to play a leading role in world affairs. Many also believe in some sad inevitabilities when doing business with foreigners. The Chinese look back to a history in which the nation’s riches have often been robbed by outsiders. They have an understandable fear and belief that foreigners will try this again. To overcome this barrier, and achieve success in business, you need to understand your strengths and the strengths of Chinese culture.
Foreigners can experience culture shock in some of these areas:
- Don’t say exactly what you mean
The Chinese do things and express their feelings in an indirect way. They are so indirect that many foreigners have difficulty understanding what’s happening. If you keep things implicit (don’t say exactly what you mean), it will help you deal with the Chinese. For the Chinese, this reduces the chances of direct conflict.
- Hidden strength
Individual Chinese generally follow a tradition of extreme modesty – they prefer to overestimate others and underestimate themselves. They may say “We are so impressed by your speed and know-how” when they know that they can do it faster and better than you – an outcome of a highly collectivist culture. Foreigners may be shocked at the unwillingness of Chinese people to promote themselves and of negative reactions from the Chinese when they hear foreigners hyping their own abilities.
- Symbolic friendship
Although Chinese people at first seem friendly to foreigners, it’s not easy for a foreigner to get into Chinese communities and culture. Even foreigners who get invited into the homes of Chinese people may find that this is not a sign of true friendship.
- Flexible time
Many Eastern cultures including China do not always measure time in minutes and seconds. They may instead suggest a flexible period, since relationships are The Chinese are comfortable with this: it gives them flexibility. The foreigner may be very uncomfortable with this, as it seems to create uncertainty.
- No thanks
Chinese people are grateful for kindness from others, but they might not say thanks as often as you expect.Chinese people show their gratitude in other ways s who do not recognise this kind of smile may consider that working with the Chinese is a “thankless” activity. culture. In, such as helping you when you need help.
At the same time, there are antidotes to help you deal with these potential challenges. Register for Argonaut to find out more. When you register with Argonaut, you will be able to browse a full set of resources about Chinese culture, including:
Chinese style of communication
The role of fate in Chinese culture
Building Chinese teams
… and much more! Have a look at the sneak peeks below!
Communication in Chinese culture
The aim of all constructive communication with Chinese partners must be to avoid situations in which they lose face within their group. The interpreters who are widely used in international negotiations are sometimes the fall guys: taking the blame for “inaccurately translating” messages which have caused embarrassment. This face-saving conclusion may be a service by the translator who is very much more junior than the delegation leader. In China, deception is considered a neutral tactic (neither very good nor bad) when it is justified by the end, in particular the wellbeing of the family or an organisation.
Some techniques which generally work well in communication with the Chinese include:
- the use of non-verbal channels – the Chinese are skilled at sending and receiving coded/hidden messages, nuances and veiled threats
- choose carefully where you use sincerity, honesty, frankness and where you use diplomacy, indirectness, tact – both approaches are needed to make progress in discussion
- avoid situations where your Chinese partner has to say ‘no’ to your requests
- allow some issues to remain ambigous, especially where you suspect there may be differences of opinion
- use time wisely – they expect stamina, patience, perseverance, the ability to sit through endless banquets or business meetings
- avoid anything that could be perceived as the arrogance of foreigners, pushiness or exploitation
To learn about other communication strategies, and to access a full set of resources, register for Argonaut.
Hong Kong Chinese tend to use an indirect communication style. Context is important to them, and it’s important to watch out for non-verbal clues to find out the message being conveyed – the onus is on the listener to interpret the speaker’s meaning correctly. In business situations this means that subordinates may not question the boss; doing so suggests he or she has not explained the topic well. Detailed instructions, which limit the possibility of making a mistake are preferred.
When communicating, keeping ‘face’ in mind is important. Embarrassing someone or backing him or her into a ‘verbal corner’ may cause loss of face.
Hong Kong Chinese may avoid giving a counterpart a direct ‘no’. Instead, they may say that something ‘will be difficult’ or ‘will need more consideration’.
Fate in Chinese Culture
“Accept your destiny, as you do your duty, be satisfied with your position, obey the voice of heaven.”
One of the basic Chinese beliefs is that the forces of nature can be greatly beneficial or grossly dangerous. Natural and spiritual forces Spiritual forces inhabit every spot on earth. They influence for better or worse the fate of people who live there or pass by, for ever. People must encourage the good spirits and make peace with the demons.
Individual Chinese typically have a fatalistic attitude to situations – luck is an important concept, and gambling can be popular. Alone, they cannot influence events much, and they prefer to act in harmony with them. For example, in a social context, this can be seen by the sharp rise in online dating and matchmaking. People depend greatly on their group to get things done. However, at a group level, as a community or nation, there will be a stronger sense of mission. Power and strength is gained, and the group can influence fate and destiny to a far greater extent. This attitude can be found among Chinese officials, and has an impact on communication between the “Middle Kingdom” and foreigners allowed to work with them.
Hong Kong Chinese generally believe that external forces influence their lives. They are concerned with traditional beliefs such as feng shui, and have the ability to ‘eat bitterness’, meaning to deal with tragedy and suffering with calmness and strength.
If they feel they are powerless to change a situation they may simply be accepting – “that’s how it is”.
There are also a number of superstitious beliefs that usually relate to words that sound alike in the Chinese language. For example, the number 4, which sounds like the word for death is considered very unlucky. The number 8, which sounds like the word for fortune is considered lucky. Fish, along with other special foods, will be eaten at Chinese New Year because the word for fish sounds like the word for surplus.
Rituals are used to help bring success in business. Examples include checking the Chinese almanac to find a lucky day for a product launch or burning incense and performing a ceremony on the opening day of a new shop or restaurant. An outsider who places less importance on the role of fate needs to consider this mindset when doing business. Register for Argonaut to discover your own preferences and how best to work in this type of situation.
How do the Chinese participate in groups?
Although the Chinese are a well-known collectivist culture, they can join new groups reluctantly. Loyalty to their four existing main networks (family, work unit, school and community) comes before making new friends or attracting outside talent. These networks aim for selfsufficiency.
Family-run businesses enable members of the inner circle to exercise maximum control over their future. Personal relationships within these groups are the route to individual advancement. Members of the group depend very heavily upon it.
This strong group-orientation has a number of implications and outcomes for those working with the Chinese. For example, an individual’s freedom of action, initiative, social and geographic mobility are greatly restricted by his or her group obligations – understanding these obligations can help facilitate achieving business success. Accountability may be unclear. Conformity is considered the norm. One of the key motivators for the Chinese is approval from the group – there are a number of practical strategies with which you may motivate a Chinese
Relationships are constantly reinforced by requesting and doing favours. Any outsider will find it necessary to recognize and understand these “guanxi” networks. Individual rights and identity are typically of less interest to a Chinese person than keeping face and positive relationships within the group. A person from a more individualist culture may initially find this frustrating, so finding out about the reciprocal “guanxi” networks prepares you for operating in this environment.
Group membership is equally important to Hong Kong Chinese people.
The first loyalty is to the family. The family is also the first source of guanxi (or gwaan hai in Cantonese), which is the network of relationships essential to every Chinese person. network as extending weblike around the individual and encompassing family, classmates, colleagues and business associates.
A mutual, two-way relationship is the key to guanxi: favours or assistance should be repaid at some point in the future. Developing relationships and being accepted into a group takes time.
Get the Argonaut newsletter
Sign up for the Argonaut Newsletter, which delivers links to the most popular articles, blogs, and multimedia features via e-mail to your inbox every month.