As a foreigner working and living in China, you’re bound to have an argument or disagreement with a Chinese person at some point. Chinese people deal with conflict differently than we do in the West, which of course can lead to more frustration and misunderstandings. Here’s what you need to know about Chinese culture to hopefully avoid or, failing that, diffuse an argument in China.
In my view, there are three main things that can lead to conflict between foreigners and Chinese people:
1. The Chinese Concept of “Face”
Quick! What’s the easiest way to look cool? Fight the man! This concept of fighting back against figures of authority, whether it be your parents, your boss, or even the government, is so ingrained in Western culture that foreigners often don’t think twice about it. That, combined with an education system that encourages students to make and learn from mistakes, has created a more open culture in parts of the West, where screwing up, disagreements and conflicts are often openly discussed (with varying degrees of politeness).
However, in Chinese culture, and most of East Asia in general,“face” stands supreme. Face refers to the concept of your public status in the eyes of your peers or general society. When someone openly disagrees with you or reveals a mistake that you made, that status takes a hit. And when that status is perceived to affect your employment opportunities, romantic relationships or the respect of your friends, it becomes all the more important. Consequently, you might find some Chinese people are extremely sensitive when it comes to open confrontation or perceived insults. Always take the softly-softly approach to conflicts in China.
2. Culture Shock
If you only went by the stereotypes you see on American TV, you’d think all Americans are fat gun-toting cowboys with sex addictions and a deep love of hamburgers. Admittedly, some of us are. Now imagine that all you’ve been watching for the last 50 years is state-sponsored Chinese television. The stereotypes of foreigners you’ve been fed are likely less than complimentary, and the majority of Chinese people have little or no interaction with foreigners in their day-to-day lives to disprove that.
This is something to keep in mind when you’re in a difficult situation with a Chinese person. Most foreigners love to point out examples of folksy racism in China, but the simple fact is that China was a closed society until very recently. Many people you encounter will have negative perceptions of foreigners stemming from historical precedent, media exposure and the few rude and annoying foreigners they actually meet in China. This means they’re likely to think the worst of you with very little prompting.
3. Us vs. Them Mentality
Sometimes when I am out and about, I see other foreigners and they give me the ol’ ‘foreigner nod.’ I quickly scurry away and avoid eye contact because I don’t feel any kinship with someone simply because we’re both foreign and in China. Many Chinese people, on the other hand, will automatically leap to the defense of another Chinese person involved in a dispute with a foreigner. You’ll typically be assumed guilty until proven innocent.
Just ask Guthrie McLean, an American college student who was jailed for a week last summer for pushing a taxi driver who had allegedly been hitting his deaf mom in a dispute over the fare. The cab driver claimed damages of around RMB 60,000. When McLean was unable to prove his claim of the cabbie’s attack or pay the fine, the police threw him in jail. Regardless of the facts of the situation, as the foreigner you’re always starting out on the back foot.
Especially in a work place setting, if you have a problem or spot mistake, don’t openly address it in front of other people. Approach the person one-on-one and try and diffuse the situation privately. You will find them far more amenable to your suggestions if you don’t make a scene. It’s all about “face”, remember?
2.Be Polite but Firmly Insistent
If you’re dealing with a cog in Chinese bureaucracy, you might feel the urge to murder everyone around you; no-one seems to know what to do or have any interest in helping you. The key here is to be polite but insistent. Make it clear that you will not be leaving until your problem is resolved, and cheerfully remind them of your existence at regular intervals. Once it becomes obvious you’re not going away, whoever you’re dealing with is likely to help you out, just to avoid further embarrassed.
3.Cynical but True: Get Hard Evidence
If you’re having a dispute of a serious nature in China, you can often diffuse an argument by supplying proof of your grievance. Always make agreements in writing, either via email or WeChat, and to avoid verbal deals or promises. Once everyone is aware of what’s stated in black and white, it becomes much easier to dissolve a conflict.
4. You Catch More Flies with Honey
This old chestnut is a classic, but especially relevant in China. Being nice and pleasant will go long way when you’re dealing with a dispute in China. Language and cultural barriers can lead to a great deal of frustration and mounting tension, but if you can remain calm and patient you’re already winning. As stated above, losing your cool is not cool in China. Be respectful to your opponent and appeal to their nicer side.