Are We Equipped to Deal with Chinese Inscrutabilities?

A previous post addressed the key success factor of building personal relationships when dealing with the Chinese. Of course, a necessary pre-condition is to understand them in the first place, and raises the question of whether those who are not, or have not been, immersed or raised in China, can ever really achieve full understanding.

I am reminded of a story told to me in my first month in China at the turn of this century, a story that had a profound effect on my approach to observing and understanding the Chinese. It was about a social science research question which asked respondents if they would prefer (A) they received one million yuan (a significant amount of money today, let alone over twelve years ago); or (B) they received 2 million yuan, but at the same time a close friend (not a family relative) received 5 million yuan.

To my disbelief, more than 90% of respondents apparently chose (A)!

My response at the time was perfunctory with glib references to Chinese inscrutabilities and how unusual it was for a communist state (back then more than today) to be so concerned by social status comparisons.

However, the anecdote has become more poignant over years of continual experiencing the manifestations of such thinking from trivial day-to-day occurrences such as non-conformance to queues in public places; or observing unsavory competitive behavior in business dealings.

More importantly, it has given rise to an understanding of Confucian Chinese society, based on the concept of shame, which monitors its own actions and positions from the stand point of others; and is opposed to Western society which focuses on individualism and the actions people take to further their own advancement quite separate to the collective. It is as a result of this concept of shame that gives rise to different behaviors, and introduces the very Eastern reference to “Face” – described as a strategy that protects self respect and social status.

The Chinese are sensitive as to how they, or by extension their family/organization/country, are regarded by others. “Face” is a complex and highly refined method through which social interactions within Chinese society is given a much deeper meaning. Being aware of this, and truly understanding other Chinese inscrutabilities, will enhance your dealings in China.

Tim is the founder and managing director of DaLu Venture Solutions and works with clients to optimize value in their Chinese Foreign partnerships across the lifecycle phases of Joint Venture (JV) development and management.

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