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Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in China

Submitted: September 2013

Chinese citizens can appear to be aloof and shy. They often come across as very self-conscious when around strangers and have a tendency to become giggly when they feel uncomfortable discussing a particular subject matter.

Behaving in a formal manner towards strangers is common practice and the formality will remain until such time as an individual has been accepted to the inner circle of a group. Modesty about one’s own achievements and successes marks Chinese people out for not wishing to be the subject of discussions or gossip.

Commanding respect in the community, also known as having face, is more important than anything else to Chinese individuals. Any loss of face could permanently damage the relationship an individual has with his peers and must therefore be avoided whatever it takes. It is for this reason that Chinese people will always be as accommodating and polite as possible. During a discussion a person of higher rank in the community is unlikely to contradict someone of lower rank as this could lead to the latter losing face. The high value placed on loyalty and discretion can be directly linked to the desire of not losing face.

A Chinese individual is very reluctant to apologise, and face to face apologies are rare even when a person knows they are in the wrong. Apologies are considered to be humiliating and could cause someone to lose face. To that end, there are a number of businesses offering to apologise on someone else’s behalf. The ‘apologist for hire’ enterprise is spreading throughout the country.  

Chinese have a long tradition of good behaviour to adhere to. Individuals are expected to respect family hierarchy. This respect is rooted in the teaching of Confucius which describe an individuals’ position in a family or business hierarchy. The same teaching describes the necessary behaviour to be displayed by each individual towards other people on the basis of their relationship to each other.

The Chinese language is very complex and lends itself to the indirect approach used by most natives when they ask a question or make a request. It is considered rude to ask a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no, as this could lead to the enquirer being embarrassed or feeling hurt when the answer they receive is not the one they had hoped for.

When it comes to expression of feelings, Chinese individuals are generally not very forthcoming. It is rare for a native to express feelings of love or affection even within the family circle. This is despite the fact that a great emphasis is placed on the importance of family and a number of generations of the same family often share a home.

Although people are often shy, don’t talk about their feelings; are reluctant to ask direct questions, to apologise or complain; are fearful of losing face and are obsessed with formality and etiquette; there is another side to the cultural traits that will surprise many newcomers to the country. Chinese individuals will often ask very personal questions of someone they have just met. Questions about marital status, age, professional standing, income etc. are not uncommon. Some of the answers will help a Chinese person decide how to address someone, but some of it is nothing more than inquisitiveness. In addition, Chinese people are very open about their bathroom habits and will think nothing of informing assembled dinner guests that they are just off to the toilet and what exactly it is they intend to do there.

Chinese people are considered to be hard working and it has been known for individuals to go to sleep the minute they finish work. Hardship is not uncommon in China and perhaps it is for this reason that people do not tend to complain and simply accept ‘their lot’ and get on with it. Displays of high emotion are generally not well received and people are expected to deal with their own problems instead of talking about them or seeking help from professionals such as psychiatrists and the like.

All in all it has to be said that Chinese traits are very complex and it is impossible to understand all of them. The best any expat can do is ‘watch, listen and learn’.



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