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Chinese puzzle and Western enigma: 10 common misunderstandings and how to avoid them

Between China and the West, between the Chinese and the French, the Germans, the Americans, numerous cultural differences remain. But they are not always easy to identify and understand, all the less so when the exchanges take place in the same language – business English – and we have the impression that we are talking about the same things. Thereafter, inoffensive or serious misunderstandings can destabilize the speakers and make it difficult to work together. This is the other side of globalization: more and more cases of misunderstanding. However, it is not impossible to avoid them. All you need are a few keys that allow you to step into the other person's shoes. Here are ten such keys, covering some especially sensitive points met in the business world.

January 2015
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lire en français
Executive Summary

1. The way a true thought is expressed, framed

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 express refusals, or to speak their mind, their true thoughts and feelings. French culture allows for a degree of double-entendre, while the Germans or the Americans make a point of expressing their thoughts explicitly. But from a Chinese point of view, nuances like these hardly count at all: a Chinese may sometimes perceive a Westerner’s expressions as brutally aggressive.

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 Men. A Chinese person will consequently feel embarrassed to refuse something bluntly, because he/she does not want to risk losing face with his vis-à-vis or breaking a “harmonious” ambience, albeit 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.” The Chinese will also tend to describe the circumstances that frame an event rather than to speak directly about a subject with which they are not familiar, and in so doing, deducing that the vis-à-vis will construe that the answer is a “yes” or a “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.

A French worker employed by Huawei-France carried out a simple test to try to get his Chinese boss to say “no”; after eight e-mails, failing to do so, he finally gave up. Generally speaking, to say “no” is something extremely difficult for the Chinese. Maybe a bit less for the younger generations who have been partly westernized.

2. 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. Westerners are not necessarily aware of what they have in common because there are degrees of nuance between a “cards on the table” confrontation, close to physical assault and a well-conducted negotiation. 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 as disturbing harmony and therefore it is 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 degenerate into a major conflict. Conflicts can be resolved if they are dealt with at a very early stage, in a friendly manner or discreetly.

3. 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 even try to pass on the blame to someone else, France being typical in this respect. This habit of seeking to designate a scapegoat is striking for the Chinese who work with French colleagues.

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,” China emphasizes a more demanding approach to oneself, with respect to others. By continuously questioning oneself (beliefs, actions …), 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, inasmuch as 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 to a compromise, which requires that each party makes steps to approach the other party’s point of view, that both admit their errors and question their own original positions. A financial control manager in a Sino-French joint venture in the province of Sichuan mentioned his surprise when, after a Chinese employee has 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 an inter-cultural team, and should a problem arise in a given project, the Chinese colleague may admit not only his errors but other persons’ errors too, to show his empathy for them and thereby try to arrange 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 the Westerner may retort: “It was your mistake and you even admitted it!”

4. Making decisions within a team

Western companies can be organized in a very hierarchic manner, but in fact many decisions rely on a majority stance, hence a specific way for meetings to be run. In France, for example, during a group discussion, even if a number of the employees present tend to expect the boss to make the final decision, the discussions leading up to this are often interactive and even boisterous, with differing, often antagonistic, points of view. From country to country, of course, various approaches can be observed when it comes to seek a compromise. But from a Chinese point of view these differences are minor questions.

For decision-making in a Chinese team is quite different. In most instances, there will be no search for a majority decision, but more for a consensus. The difference is important. A Chinese boss will never decide against the opinion of the other parties involved, no matter what his role or hierarchic position are: everyone must agree, especially in government agencies and public enterprises, even if the approach is often top-down, the discussions less dynamic and in reality, the subordinates will always try to follow the line set by their bosses. Many Chinese leaders have been influenced by the ‘Wu Wei’ (“Do nothing”) philosophy, inspired by Lao Tseu and Zhuangzi: they do not make decisions immediately but rather wait till their subordinates have arranged every detail, before signing or not.

Thus, when we address the Chinese Government to obtain approval for an investment project, we must first of all gain their confidence and also favorably impress all the members of the local team. This is what the director of a major international investment bank explains, as follows: it does not matter what hierarchic rank the vis-à-vis has, but it is important to give them sufficient time, bolster their self-esteem and assist them in their work; it is even recommended to be kind and courteous with the person who serves the tea.

5. Interpreting a contract

The concept of a contract is one of the main sources for misunderstanding between the Chinese and the Westerners, especially the French. The Chinese translation for France is “the country of law.” Indeed France is wellknown for its very rigorous legal thinking. Once contractual clauses are formally drafted, they are immutable. If need be, wording can be modified, but not so often.

In Chinese, the two ideograms合同 (he tong) for “contract” describe a convergence and suitable adjustment following a dynamic and evolving logic. In the first ideogram, the upper segment represents a cover and the lower part a box. Together, the cover and the box fit together perfectly. In the second ideogram, the upper part is a wooden dowel and the lower part a mouth singing. The overall meaning is the need to sing together to insert the dowel in the frame. 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 affective 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 delay in delivery of goods, if there is a justification and do not consider discrepancies as a “violation of contract clauses.” In a situation like this, the foreign company must avoid losing their temper and demanding strict application of the clauses as written.

The fact is that contracts represent a real value for Chinese companies, notably those that are constantly expanding their international business ventures. When some companies apparently neglect their contractual obligations, the impression Westerners have is that all Chinese companies act in the same way. Therefore, drawing the conclusion that “the Chinese do not respect contracts” is a preconceived idea and, as such, must be forcibly countered.

6. How to receive a compliment

When compliments are addressed to a Westerner, he or she receives this with pride and indeed this is seen a natural attitude. Anglo-Saxons, notably the Americans, even tend to exaggerate, resorting often to superlatives to express the compliment. In contrast, “humility” is a cardinal virtue upheld by the Chinese. There is nonetheless a fraction of their population today who adore to boast and flout their riches but these nouveaux riches are extremely criticized in China because their arrogant materialism is totally remote from the tenets 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 – and 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 knows they have done something well, they will say exactly the opposite to prove just how modest they are… thus generating some confusion for Westerners! To illustrate, with a Chinese anecdote, a Frenchman visits a Chinese family and says to the husband “Your wife is very beautiful,” only to hear “That is not true!”

7. Words or actions

This point is particularly relevant in France, a country where people love to discuss and debate for hours though sometimes being unfamiliar with the subject matter, a way of life that must necessarily be mastered completely! Even before their role as Cartesians, the French are fundamentally “debaters.” There are debates ongoing in France all the time: in the press, on the radio, on TV, in the restaurants and bars, in evenings out or at home with friends! Everywhere!

More analytical than action-prone, the French often give the impression that they want to save the world with their ideas … which in the end will not always be implemented or simply cannot be carried out. They do not make decisions without analyzing beforehand the situation, using a structured methodology (most of which they learned at school), identifying causes and consequent effects.

If American companies, for example, valorize action and risk-taking more than elsewhere, there still remains the importance we assign to words and speeches throughout the Western world. Western national cultures can be more or less outspoken, the ways people defend projects can differ, but all told, the Westerners valorize strongly having discussions during a decision making process and they stress more forcefully the need for communicating in both the professional and personal spheres.

Chinese culture is different. Taking actions is valorized 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 perforce say stupid things too.” If you speak too much, you could even lose your credibility and be seen only as a “smoothy,” a glib speaker 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 “crossing the river by feeling for stones.”

Thus, a Chinese person who arrived recently in France will not be able readily understand how the French can spend three hours discussing business while dining, even if “table culture” is also very prevalent in China! In France, any Chinese employee who focuses mainly on the job without engaging in “brilliant discussions” with the boss or colleagues will have a hard time advancing in the organization chart.

8. Taking initiatives

In the West, taking initiatives is a highly valorized attitude and indeed is absolutely necessary if you want to make a career. Numerous meetings can be held with the complete team present, to engage in brainstorming activities so as to encourage and foster new ideas and different angles.

In China, in contrast, employees show more discipline when it comes to carrying out the boss’ decisions, rather than actually taking part in the decision-making process, or proposing different ideas. Firstly, this is because taking any initiative or stepping out of line could lead to trouble. A Chinese proverb has it that “gun are fired at birds whose heads rise above the flock.” Moreover, paying respect to the boss is very important in China. When the boss takes a decision, there is no need to consult the collaborators nor even to explain the grounds for the decision.

Numerous Western managers complain about “lack of initiative” shown by their Chinese staff … but they simply forget that Chinese culture does not encourage initiative-taking. However, it is not engraved on the wall and it is possible to reverse the trend by developing a corporate culture that clearly encourages initiative-taking, for example, by associating such actions with performance indicators and providing for a sufficiently reassuring work environment to become an incentive in favor of initiatives. It is primordial, in this respect, to show that there is no career risk involved when initiatives are taken, and also to valorize those who dare, by addressing them compliments and forms of rewards.

9. Levelling criticism

Critical thinking is a characteristic of the Western world. In Northern Europe or in the USA, this can be softened by a culture expressing encouragement or compliments, while in France it can take on a sharper tone of voice. This can be associated with valorization of an analytical mind, but also through a tradition in schools where what counted most was not what you did well but what you did badly … and indeed we have here a tradition that continues in the business world.

The Chinese appreciate the advantages of a criticism-prone culture, but they also see its drawbacks. It certainly enables you to carry out in-depth analysis of various problem areas and to identify points that could be improved. But the capacity to analyze has a drawback, viz., a rapid transgression towards making unending criticism, or complaining a bit too systematically, focusing on more negative points while ignoring (or minimizing) any positive aspects.

The Chinese embody another philosophy, which focuses more on the overall vision (positive + negative) that can be expressed in the saying: “the leaf that hides the forest.” The French often make fun of the Americans’ love of superlatives, as in “that’s fantastic” or “wonderful” or “awesome” … The Chinese see words like these as signs of optimism.

For the reasons set out above, the Chinese – remembering their philosophy seeking harmony – therefore tend to avoid openly criticize their vis-à-vis, or the country. They interpret criticism as a form of antipathy or even hostility. Thus, if a Frenchman criticizes China in the presence of a Chinese national, the latter simply will not understand and might think “I have done nothing wrong, I have been friendly to him, so why is he criticizing my country?” What the Chinese person ignores is that the French also criticize their own country! In China, one is advised to avoid criticizing and, if it is felt that criticism is in order, then it must be made in a balance with positive aspects, must be sincere with supporting facts, avoiding to be seen as provocative or too ironic. Tactics like these, which are often used in France, or in the USA in what is called bullying management, would be seen in China as aggravating factors.

10. Planning a rendezvous or a meeting

In the Western world, meetings are very often planned events, with every point detailed in the agenda! In China, meetings happen with much less preparation and there remains a high chance that they will be cancelled 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.


It always proves rewarding to identify and understand the sources of cultural misunderstandings: through understanding them, the sources lose a lot of their harmful potential. And if they can be mitigated, they do not disappear completely. It is therefore useful to get to know them better. Therein lies a lesson going back to ancient Chinese wisdom: “Seek common ground, but recognize and preserve the differences.

Chunyan Li
Founder and CEO, Feida Consulting