Humility in China

Humility is looked at differently in China than in many other parts of the world. In China it’s been a part of the culture for thousands of years. China is a collectivist society which stresses the inter-dependence of individuals within that society and the cohesion that follows. The focus is on the community. Western countries, in contrast, are individualistic. Members are more self-reliant and set their own goals. The focus is on us as an individual.

It’s important, especially when conducting business in china, to recognize the existence of humility and how to react to it. Culturally, the Chinese carry a lot of baggage. They have customs, traditions, and rules governing almost every facet of their life. For the most part, Westerners have no clue when cultural heritage comes into play in a Chinese social event or a business meeting. It passes over our heads because we’re not any more familiar with Chinese culture than the Chinese might be with ours. However, the better we understand Chinese culture, the better we’re able to react and forge relationships and conduct business in China.

Humility has been an indelible part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, and the Chinese regard it as a virtue. It’s taught in schools, contained in the writings of Confucius, and ingrained in the family unit. It’s become a part of the fabric of China.

Sometimes it’s difficult for us to recognize Chinese humility. For example, if you were to praise or compliment someone in the U.S., they would probably respond by saying thank you in recognition of your compliment. But in China the response is likely to be different. Instead, the Chinese are unlikely to acknowledge or respond to this compliment. To do so would be to go against their cultural heritage and the teachings of Confucius on humility and modesty. Because humility is regarded as a virtue, the Chinese simply react differently than we do. They live in denial. They don’t want to accept the compliment, but they actually like hearing it. However, if they acknowledged the compliment they would lose their humility and this would go against their family upbringing, school teachings, and societal expectations.

Another example would be a Chinese banquet. Chinese banquets are always grand affairs with plenty of food, and even more drink. When you’re treated to such a feast your Chinese host might apologize that the food is not up to Western standards. You’ll probably look at him in the same astonished manner as I did when I first heard this. But it’s really a back-handed compliment in that he knows the food is spectacular or he wouldn’t be serving it to you and the restaurant wouldn’t be paid. He wants to awe you, but humility prevents him from accepting compliments or thanks. You should recognize this, but still thank him for his graciousness and the feast. He’ll appreciate it even if he doesn’t outwardly acknowledge the compliment.

Humility also carries over into other areas of business. For example, I was recently in Shenzhen for a meeting with a large company that had nearly a dozen offices throughout China. I was in their conference room when ten people paraded in, started handing me their business cards, and introduced themselves to me. Introducing oneself by name, but without business title, is very Chinese. In the U.S. we wouldn’t think of doing this. We’d introduce ourselves by name and title – CEO, CFO, etc. of a particular company. In fact, we’re title obsessed. In China, they are also, but they’re more subtle about it. When one of these ten people handed me his business card, which was in both Chinese and English, I saw that the card indicated that he was the company’s CEO. Being humble prevented him from using his title in introducing himself. But in China, the business card is the bridge that allows one to remain humble, yet convey their position. Taking his business card in both hands and looking at it, rather than putting it in your pocket, is expected in China. When you notice someone who is important within the company, acknowledge them. They’ll not only like it, but they’ll also appreciate the fact that you took the time to look at their card and notice their position within the company.

In a Chinese business meeting, speaking is not always a good thing, and silence is not always bad. Listening is considered a sign of humility and, in the appropriate circumstance, a deference to a more senior person in the room. Also, silence doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chinese party is not interested in what you have to say. Instead, he may be showing you his respect, while maintaining his humility, by being silent. Also, since silence in a meeting is considered a sign of humility, silence starts from the bottom up. Junior people will normally remain silent and speak only when asked to do so by someone more senior in the hierarchy of the company. The only exception to this would be if the junior person’s boss has previously directed him to bring up a particular subject or address an issue. Barring that, they’ll let their boss do the talking for the group and junior members will only speak when asked to do so by their superiors. Furthermore, don’t think you have to fill in the silence when your Chinese counterpart is not speaking as much as you. If you want him to come forward and give his opinion, simply ask him and he’ll become part of the conversation, or ask one of the people under him to answer the question. They’ll almost always join the conversation when asked.

Another manifestation of humility occurs during a lecture of speech. In most Western countries, when someone approaches the podium to speak, there’s almost always polite applause by those in attendance. In response, a Westerner would probably smile and possibly waive in acknowledgement. In China, however, they carry it one step further as the speaker is likely to applaud back to his audience as a way of thanking them for the reception he’s received. You should do the same as a way of conveying to the audience your respect for Chinese culture. They’ll be impressed and you’ll be off to a good start.

A last example is how Chinese humility can give us an inaccurate portrayal of what’s actually occurring is the job interview. Applicants from China and the U.S. couldn’t be more different in how they approach their job interview. The U.S. applicant is normally self-confident and conveys that confidence to the interviewer. His attitude is: I can do the job, give it to me. The Chinese applicant, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in telling the interviewer that he’s very highly qualified and do the job better than anyone. Instead, he’s likely to use phrases such as I think I can do the job or I’ll try. That’s not likely to be very encouraging to the interviewer. Yet this is culturally in line with what employers in China hear, and expect to hear, from their applicants. That’s why many Chinese employers will have the applicant demonstrate their skills, especially in manufacturing, prior to being hired. At the very least the applicant will be put on probation for a period of time prior to their being accepted for permanent employment. Consequently, when you have Chinese employees, don’t expect them to sell themselves. Instead, they’ll prefer to demonstrate their skills in the workplace. That’s not to say that when someone say’s I’ll try that it’s exactly what they mean. They may indeed be saying that they have no skills in this particular area but they’re willing to give it a shot. However, culturally most job applicants will not give you much information about their skills in an interview. In order to get this information you’ll have to adopt an almost deposition-like approach or else evaluate their expertise in the workplace.

Despite their cultural adherence to humility, most Chinese love to be complimented, although they may not outwardly acknowledge it. Once you’re aware of the cultural differences that exist between China and the West you’ll be more synergistic with your Chinese counterpart and won’t necessarily think his actions reflect negatively on either you or your business.


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