by Randall Mah
The inscrutable Chinese. It’s an old stereotype rooted in the exoticism that China’s culture often still evokes, but it may hold some truth. The subtle and indirect way in which Chinese often communicate can leave a foreigner confused and frustrated. The following anecdote highlights two essential aspects of Chinese culture: placing the group above the individual and saving face.
Daniel, my fellow American exchange student at the University of Hong Kong, unknowingly did things the local students in our dormitory deemed inappropriate, most notably using up too much space in the refrigerator and having female guests on our floor late at night. Consequently, the local students limited their interactions with Daniel and the floor leader started hinting at changing his behavior. None of the locals, however, would directly explain what was wrong, which left Daniel frustrated and upset. Eventually, after talking privately and individually with the floor leader and some of the locals, Daniel learned of the underlying irritation and henceforth everybody tried to be more accommodating.
According to Confucian philosophy, a person is seen in relation to others rather than as an isolated individual. The good of the group is placed above that of the individual. While Daniel’s American sensibilities stressed his right to do as he pleased, the locals saw his behavior as selfish. Consequently, they turned their backs on him. Locals who may not have been offended felt obligated to follow the lead of the majority. As such, when transacting in China, it’s critical for Westerners to show consideration and not to overtly pursue personal interests. The forward or brusque attitude that may earn one respect in the West makes one appear overbearing and vulgar in China.
To avoid open confrontation and allow Daniel to save face, the local students expressed their frustration to the floor leader, who was in turn expected to resolve the problem subtly as an intermediary.
“In America, people think that not being direct, or even confrontational, in a disagreement shows weakness,” said Lena Ng, a Hong Konger who has worked in the United States. “But in China, the idea is that avoiding confrontation provides a more harmonious environment and avoids uncomfortable situations. In Chinese culture, we like to keep disagreements in private so as not to embarrass anybody.”
But as the case of Daniel demonstrates, it can easily cause resentment for the uninitiated. “The problem with a foreigner is that she may not think anything is wrong because nobody tells her,” Ng said.
While the disagreements became an open secret, they were resolved quietly, heads held high. During interactions with Chinese, keeping one’s cool is beneficial to business. Expressing anger or making a scene is likely to lead to further isolation.
“If you want Chinese people to be more frank, don’t get angry. Talk calmly and in private and you are more likely to get the answers you want,” Ng said.