Some of the most common complaints heard from western businessmen or managers about Chinese colleagues are “they never say no!”; “Why can’t they just tell me they can’t do it?”; ”Why can’t they just tell me they need to take longer time to work?”; “Why do they say one thing and do another?” and so on.
These are more often than not, simple misunderstandings between the two different cultures, which can often destabilize relationships and make it difficult to work together. However, it is possible to understand and avoid these simple misunderstandings to make your life easier and better in China. All you need are a few points that allow you to step into the other person’s shoes.
Though we observe numerous nuances from country to country, in general, Westerners are more direct in their relationships than the Chinese; they feel freer to refuse, or to speak their mind, or express their true thoughts and feelings. But from a Chinese point of view, nuances like these hardly count at all: a Chinese person may sometimes perceive a Westerner’s expressions to be brutally aggressive.
Expressing thoughts and opinions
In traditional Chinese culture, the quest for harmony – or at times only a simple appearance of harmony – is constant: it refers to a balanced relationship between men and society, between mankind and nature and among all humans. As a saying goes “树活一层皮(shù huó yī céng pí)，人活一张脸(rén huó yī zhāng liǎn)”, meaning trees live a layer of skin, people live a face, – in other words, our reputation and how we appear(in a social sense) is important. and a core value of harmony dictated by the historicConfucius philosophy system, A Chinese person will consequently feel embarrassed to refuse something bluntly, because he/she does not want to risk losing face or breaking a ‘harmonious’ ambiance, even though the latter is only a thin surface. He or she will prefer to say “I am not sure about this” or “let me think about it.” rather than give a straight “no.” Sometimes, when the Chinese say “yes,” they are in fact expressing a “no”; moreover, they do not always explain the reasons that underpin their answer, either way.
To say “no” is something extremely difficult for the Chinese, albeit maybe less so for the younger generations who have been partly westernized.
Resolving a problem or a conflict
The Western world uses a number of ways to resolve problems, but most of them allow for confrontation, differing interests or points of view. In stark difference from the Chinese point of view, this range of options shares one important point: both parties recognize that there is a conflict.
The Chinese, on the contrary, will do everything they can to prevent or avoid conflictual situations – and problems in general – by pretending that they do not really exist. However, if the inevitable does happen, they will try to ‘reduce the main problems to a set of smaller problems and then resolve and eliminate the smaller problems,’ as a Chinese proverb has it. This explains why Chinese colleagues sometimes give the impression to the Western managers that they are trying to ‘mask’ problems. In fact, they are trying to solve the problem without informing their management. Problems are seen to disturb harmony and therefore it is often better that they remain unseen. They may also be scared to reveal a problem that might upset the management and result in a loss of trust!
One practical lesson can be drawn here. Should a conflict arise in the case of a partnership in China, it is advisable – rather than directly seek a decision in court proceedings – to begin by looking for a compromise, otherwise the situation may instantly descend into a major conflict. Conflicts can be resolved if they are dealt with at a very early stage, in a friendly manner or discreetly.
The art of choosing a stance when a problem occurs
In order to preserve harmony and appease a problematic situation, the Chinese tend to personally accept their responsibility if and when an error occurs. This inclination to admit guilt is a major cultural trait and contrasts strongly with Western habits. Westerners will be more inclined to justify themselves…and maybe more likely try to pass on the blame to someone else
The notion of personal responsibility is central to Chinese education. Teachers constantly repeat to their pupils that “should a problem arise, begin by thinking about your own errors!” As is illustrated in another Chinese proverb, you are invited to “sit in silence facing the wall and think about your errors,” thus emphasizing a more demanding approach to oneself, and advocating respect to others. Continuously questioning oneself (beliefs, actions, etc.), is seen as a way to continue to improve and to preserve harmonious relationships with those around you.
From a Western point of view, this may seem surprising, since when problems arise it is more common to associate responsible behavior with a certain capacity to face up to the problems, or at least not avoid them, and respect the contract terms. The Chinese live in another culture when it comes to responsibility, whereby they are less obsessed by questions of formal compliance with formal terms of agreement in contracts and insist more on the capacity individuals have to mitigate a confrontation and agree on a compromise. This requires each party to make steps to approach the other party’s point of view, where they can both admit their errors and question their own original positions.
After a Chinese employee once received a letter of reprimand, this person answered, in essence: “Thank you, Sir. With your letter, I shall now be able to question my attitude and do better next time!” This culture of self-questioning can lead to further misunderstandings. In a multicultural team, should a problem arise in a given project, the Chinese colleague may shoulder blame for not only his errors but other persons’errors too, to show his empathy for them and thereby try to resolve matters. His hope is that his or her Western vis-à-vis will follow the same path so that they can find grounds for mutual agreement. But there is a risk that exactly the opposite will happen and others may retort: “It was your mistake and you even admitted it!”
Interpreting a contract
The concept of a contract is one of the main sources for misunderstanding between the Chinese and Westerners. The Chinese translation for the West is ‘the region of law.’ Indeed, the Western society is well-known for its very rigorous legal thinking. Once contractual clauses are formally drafted and signed, they are fixed. If need be, wording can be modified, but not so often.
In Chinese, the two characters合同 (hétóng) for ‘contract’ describe a convergence and suitable adjustment following a dynamic and evolving logic. For the Chinese, a contract signals the start to a commercial relationship and must be constantly adjusted to fit evolution of the contractual context. The most important thing is to recognize trust and bonds, whereas the Westerners will focus more on the value of an unchanging written text.
The Chinese, consequently, are more inclined to accept small variations in the enforcement of a contract, such as a day or two delays in delivery of goods. The fact is however, that contracts do also represent a real value for Chinese companies, particularly those that are constantly expanding their international business ventures. Therefore, the impression Westerners draw the conclusion that “the Chinese do not respect contracts”, which is a preconceived idea which must be forcibly countered.
When receiving a compliment
When compliments are addressed to a Westerner, he or she receives this with pride and indeed this is seen a natural attitude. In contrast, humility’ is a cardinal virtue upheld by the Chinese. Even though there is a fraction of their population today who love to boast and flout their riches, they are highly criticized in China because their arrogant materialism is totally remote from the values of traditional Chinese culture.
In the business world, this humility cultural feature can also lead to some misunderstanding. When a Chinese person receives a compliment, their attitude will often be to answer modestly: in a few short statement such as, for example, “It really was nothing”, “I did not merit this” or “I must continue to improve.” The notion of continuous improvement is important.
The Chinese today – most notably the younger generations – have at last learned to say “thank you” when they receive a compliment, but many of them still add a few words to somewhat“soften” the compliment. From a Western point of view, the degree of modesty shown by the Chinese is close to hypocritical, even ‘nonsense’. For example, even if they know they have done something well, they will say exactly the opposite to prove just how modest they are… thus generating some confusion for Westerners!
Words or actions
Westerners strongly value having discussions during a decision-making process and they stress more forcefully the need for communicating in both the professional and personal spheres, where people love to discuss and debate for hours in the decision-making process.
Chinese culture is different. Taking actions is prioritised far more than speaking or providing explanations, as the following proverbs illustrate: “A good man is rapid in taking action and pays attention to what he says” or “He who speaks a lot will say stupid things too.” If you speak too much, you could even lose your credibility and be seen only as a “smoothy,” a big-talker who does nothing and lacks in discretion. The Chinese prefer a more pragmatic approach: they make decisions rapidly, as soon as they have understood the problem, even if they have not analyzed every aspect in detail. As the saying goes, it is a case of “crossing the river by feeling for stones.”
Planning a rendezvous or a meeting
In the Western world, meetings are very often planned events, with every point detailed in the agenda! InChina, meetings happen with much less preparation and there remains a high chance that they will be canceled at the last minute. Quite often, the participants are told of the cancellation the day before the meeting is to take place. But this is not considered impolite.
How are we to understand this? Even if the Chinese accept a first request for a rendezvous they remain open, up to the very last minute, to other requests that arrive later, for the same date and at the same hours, so as not to miss out on an opportunity. In fact, in Chinese philosophy, constant evolution is a very important concept, like an endlessly changing disk – nothing, from the very beginning, is absolutely established or static. As soon as the situation changes, everything else must adapt to this.