Ruth Vahle
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The Chabuduo Mindset

If you come from the West, you are likely used to things being done according to specifications and high standards. You probably wouldn’t expect less than 100%.

Not so in China. In China, the typical approach is summed up in one word: “chabuduo”, meaning “nearly” or “almost”. For most Chinese it also means “good enough”. You will hear this term a lot.

Chabuduo差不多 – Good enough or not quite?

Tony, an Italian friend and business owner, asked his Chinese employee to clean up a document, add a vertical line on the left and have all text aligned with that line. When he was handed the document back, the requested line was there, some text was aligned with it but some still wasn’t.

When Tony pointed out to his employee that not everything lined up perfectly, she was genuinely surprised. From her perspective the alignment was “chabuduo”, good enough.

Attention to detail and consistency

Beyond the chabuduo mindset you will encounter a general difference in attention to details and consistency. This is evident in documents where the formatting seems to be all over the place with different fonts and font sizes. In defense of the formatting chaos, working in China means for many employees switching between English and Chinese keyboard settings. When switching to English, often the font defaults back to a different size and style than used before. Many Chinese people don’t see the difference between different font styles, much like we wouldn’t notice if different styles were used for Chinese characters.

Punctuation is also often inconsistent, with missing blanks or a blank space inserted at the wrong location, often before a comma instead of after. I can easily spot a text written by a Chinese by just looking at punctuation, especially the placing of commas.

Once a Chinese finds an English expression, sentence or entire paragraph good, this English section may get copied and pasted into different documents without further review and adaptation. For example, a product name or other info may not get updated to reflect the current document. Or the overall context may not really fit or flow with the inserted section.

I have heard over and over again that when you task a Chinese employee with English correspondence for a Western customer or with preparation of important English documents, you have to pay attention to the output. To reduce the number of revision iterations, you should give very specific style instructions, ideally with a template, and review everything carefully.

Neat looking documents seem to be a Western pet peeve. Many Chinese would scrabble and strike through on any document, no matter how official it is, without thinking twice about it. If you want to preserve a clean original, make sure to bring a copy to write on.

Chinese pragmatism

Chinese people can be very pragmatic, which can be great if you need to get something done quickly. For example, when I applied for my HSK exam I didn’t bring the requested photo. No problem, the clerk just took out her smartphone, snapped a photo of me, sent it to her work computer and pasted it into my application. In most other countries, I would have been told to come back later with the required photos.

At the same time, there is danger lurking in that pragmatism. Cutting corners and the chabuduo approach to get something done faster and/or cheaper can severely impact the quality of the output. You only have to look at the quality of the workmanship in many buildings in China.

What is your experience with this in China? Is chabuduo thinking driving you crazy or not, and how do you deal with it?

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.
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