Cultural Differences Between America and China
Photo Credit: Goodle Images/ US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Chinese Ambassador to the US Zhang Yesui
by Randall Mah
One thing that often strikes newcomers to the United States is Americans' gregariousness. It’s not unusual for strangers to get friendly and strike up conversations about a common interest. Yet in reality, Americans are likely to draw clear distinctions between acquaintances and business associates, and their personal friends. Conversely, while Chinese are often perceived as more reserved and distant than Americans, they seek genuine personal relationships with their business partners that go beyond networking and they actively work to build these connections. Understanding Chinese business etiquette, how it differs from American business culture and how Chinese build relationships, communicate, and interact with business associates is critical to closing the deal in China. Understanding the difference between the American and Chinese cultures is the key.
Approaches to Relationships
In America culture, colleagues may occasionally go to happy hour together and attend the office holiday party to get to know each other on a more personal level. Yet, beyond these office-sponsored functions, many Americans don’t necessarily socialize, or want to socialize, with their colleagues outside work. Many want to keep their professional and personal lives separate.
Chinese, on the other hand, expect to know personally those with whom they are doing business and want to foster genuine trust with them. In Chinese culture, trust is indispensable to building the confidence needed to do business with partners. Consequently, in China you are really expected to get to know your partners, follow appropriate etiquette and to socialize in a way you wouldn't in America. Investing now in relationship building, or guanxi, can pay big business dividends later.
Moving at Different Paces
Americans put a premium on being efficient, straightforward and getting things done quickly. Consequently, many are frustrated with the slower pace at which business is conducted in Chinese culture. Socializing can seem pointless to many Americans and the consensus-building can make Chinese seem indecisive. To Americans, time is money.
Chinese, however, prize attentiveness and patience, which they see as essential for developing a genuine understanding of their business partners. Building relationships takes time in Chinese culture and the Chinese believe it leads to more successful transactions later.
Styles of Communication
As much as Chinese prize strong personal connections, Americans should keep in mind they equally prize tact and etiquette. The direct and blunt communication that is the norm in American offices makes many Chinese very uncomfortable, particularly if it's critical. To Americans, a person who is not straightforward is often perceived as insincere or evasive. As such, American bosses may have no reservations about being harsh with their employees, especially when it means boosting the bottom line.
In China, however, this mindset can be counterproductive. For Chinese, such directness can be humiliating. It causes them to lose face, while the other person comes across as rude. Consequently, Chinese appreciate subtle, indirect ways of communicating.
Perceptions of Hierarchy
While egalitarianism may be a pillar of China’s defunct communist culture, Chinese typically have a stronger respect for hierarchy and etiquette than Americans. Consequently, hierarchy is likely to inform Chinese people’s interactions with others, especially foreigners in a professional environment. But whether or not an American holds a senior position at their company, Chinese are likely to show special deference to American colleagues and American culture. As such, Chinese may be less forthcoming with and more accommodating of foreigners without revealing any objections or concerns they may have. This invisible barrier between Chinese and Americans gives you even more incentive to establish a personal rapport with your Chinese colleagues to overcome it.
Relationships First, Business Second
Ultimately, everything mentioned underscores the fact that in China, relationships come first and business comes after trust. To Chinese, business is more than just contracts and agreements. This way of thinking may be counterintuitive for Americans, who may understand business only in dollars and yuan. As a result, Americans must take a more personal approach with their Chinese partners. You’ll be expected to make frequent trips to China and to socialize to show your commitment to the relationship.
If you want to seal the deal in China, it’s going to take some loving. By understanding how professional relationships and etiquette go hand-in-hand in China, you’ll put yourself in a better position to close a business deal. So when you're in China, sit back, get comfortable, and relax. Business will come in due time and you may actually have fun and make friends along the way.