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Cultural Distinctions:East and West

Western cultures prize individual achievement and success.  Asian cultures most value modesty and consensus.  Chinese focus on the contribution of the individual to social harmony and improvement. They are duty-oriented people who work hard to fulfill responsibilities to family, community, work group, society and country.  Decision making in China is based on gathering consensus and the final decision is made by the leader of the group after all range of views are considered. In the Chinese language, the word for “self” carries a negative connotation which is similar to selfishness in interpretation. Even Chinese business letters have a red seal, which represents the whole company or government agency, rather than being signed by an individual. There is a proverb in Asia which says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”  Even though the country of China is massive and spans six time zones, there is only one standard time, which is that of Beijing.  Chinese people traditionally view others who don’t consider the benefit of the group ahead of themselves as lacking in piety and duty.

Chinese consider boasting or self-promotion to be in poor form and will typically be quite modest about their own accomplishments.  A knowledgeable, capable person who handles matters with a modest and respectful attitude towards others gains much admiration.

Personal Pride and Privacy
“Saving Face” is a concept most Westerners know is important to daily life in Asia, however most underestimate the breadth and depth of the importance of this concept to daily life in China.  Maintaining family or your own reputation and doing the same for others in your group is one of the most important moral responsibilities of every Chinese person.  Praising an associate to his superiors for a strong contribution to the group success is a way to “give face” to someone.  However, a direct “no” to an invitation to dinner will embarrass your Chinese host.  If you must decline, it is better to apologize profusely and then provide an alternative.

There is no word for “privacy” in Mandarin and this fact is reflected in the daily life.  Talking about domestic concerns of others is very natural to the Chinese people.  This may be as a result of high population density and practical history of two or three generations living under the same roof.  Westerners value their privacy highly and what Westerners would consider very private questions, the Chinese would think it normal to ask about. So, if you should get asked questions about weight, salary, age, marital status or the price you spent on a particular item, it is not intended to be offensive.  It is suggested to give a very brief answer and move on in conversation instead of avoiding the answer altogether, as it will be seen as suspicious behavior. The questioner is not likely extremely interested in keeping this information, but it is a gesture of sincere interest in getting acquainted with you.

“A single word is worth a thousand pieces of gold”

Chinese people are typically ambiguous in their communication with others as they place such great value on harmony.  They consider the context and nonverbal communication as most important.  Oftentimes silence is an essential component to the context of understanding the communication.  In conversation the real meaning, especially if it’s negative, is usually implied. So what is NOT said is usually at least as important as what IS said.  The Chinese will avoid saying no and may say (“Yanjui yanuiu”) which translates as “We will do some research and discuss it later.”  This is actually a way of saying “no” politely in Chinese culture. Silence, which can imply there are problems, can often imply “No”.

Chinese will often tell their foreign visitors whatever they believe they want to hear, whether it is true or not.  They value harmony and graciousness and are appalled at they would consider open conflict with a guest.  Also, Chinese smile as a matter of courtesy and nod their head in a gesture that says “I hear you.”  Westerners typically interpret this nod of the head as a “yes”, when it is merely meant as a courteous gesture of listening.   Being a good listener is considered a high virtue in Chinese culture. It is best to listen more and talk less. 

Gestures and Body Language:
Chinese will typically avoid eye contact in conversation, especially when talking to strangers or to the opposite gender. Generally it is considered aggressive and rude to look directly into another’s eyes while talking.  Westerners typically stand two to three feet apart, while the Chinese are comfortable with a smaller distance. Shaking hands is considered acceptable.  Unless you are a very close friend, do not touch another person’s arm when speaking, as it is a sign of close familiarity.

The common Westerner’s habit of shrugging the shoulders has a very different meaning to the Chinese.  This gesture is a sign of disrespect and disdain for the Chinese, so avoid using this gesture at all.  Also, never point to someone by using your head or foot to refer to someone, it is considered very disrespectful.   If the Chinese wish someone to come closer, they will put one arm out and with the palm down move fingers in a scratching motion.  If you use your thumb and index finger to make the “OK” sign, it will be meaningless to a Chinese person.  “Thumbs up” will mean the same to a Chinese and Western person as a gesture.

These are a few important cultural distinctions which may help you feel more comfortable and less confused by differing behavior when traveling to an Asian country.

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