That sounds very cynical, my husband and I thought. And it can’t be right. After all, we had Chinese friends in the US, my husband had worked extensively with Chinese including having a Chinese boss and at one time being the sole non-Chinese member of a big team. We thought we had a pretty good understanding of Chinese people. Well, at least the Chinese people we met in the US.
Trust or understanding?
We have now been in China for well about three years and are experiencing the culture every day. From interactions at work, learning the language, and just daily life, we now see where my friend was coming from.
Instead of his harsh words, however, I would put it a bit differently. I would say that as a Westerner you cannot fully understand the Chinese. At least not within just a few years. Maybe it takes more time, more immersion, better language skills or other measures for us to fully understand the Chinese way of thinking.
This is not only true for the “local” Chinese but also for the returnees, those usually middle-aged Chinese who often spent many years abroad. In their heart they remain Chinese and in a Chinese environment they “act Chinese”.
The Chinese way of thinking – or Confucius, Face and Guanxi
The Chinese way of thinking (xiǎng fǎ 想法) is of course heavily influenced by their cultural context. Confucianism and the concepts of Face and Guanxi all play an important role.
Without understanding those cultural influences, a Westerner will have a hard time understanding the way Chinese communicate and behave in a business setting and in everyday life.
If you want to read more about the people and culture element of working in China, check out this Practical Guide – Managing in China. The Practical Guide describes many typical work situations and provides real life examples to illustrate the cultural differences in the workplace. It also gives practical tips and insights to help Western professionals be successful when working in China.