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Differences Between Chinese and American Culture

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As China and the U.S are currently regarded as the top two world powers economically speaking. That being said, it is important to understand the business culture and the differences between Chinese and American culture, and the similarities in our cultures as there have been increased tensions in recent years. This text aims to give a brief insight into the two countries’ cultures and society and how it affects business culture and etiquette in five distinct categories: guanxi, mianzi, gift-giving, meeting people, and the structure of a business meeting. Further, this is a compare and contrast analysis of the business cultures and how they conduct business both internationally and domestically. Lastly, the text will identify some external impacts of the two business cultures.

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Introduction

China and the U.S are the world’s economic leaders as they contribute the most to the global economy today. As Globalization increases and societies become more and more technological-based—these two countries have proven to be the economic leaders as they have dominated the business world. As a result, the interaction between these countries has grown at an unbelievable rate and will continue to grow as technology integrates our markets more and more. One crucial difference is the presence of each country’s business culture though both have proven to be successful. Not understanding the differences in business cultures can prove to be a liability when conducting business in either country.

Today, we live in a globalized economy and have no signs of turning back any time soon. As such, International business and understanding international business are critical to a business’s success in today’s society. However, many young college minds do not acknowledge the global aspect until they are in a position that would force them t. At this point, it might be too late as there is not a lot of time to prepare. As I currently have just completed an internship in China and have some experience working in the U.S, I understand some of the differences in each culture as I have experienced it from an anecdotal perspective.

Business culture is a broad term and can be defined in a multitude of ways, so for this paper, I will define the business culture in 5 specific facets: the idea of connections and establishment of connections (Guanxi), the idea of the face (mianzi), the structure of a business meeting, gift-giving, and meeting people. This paper will primarily focus on the U.S and China based on these topics and also take a brief look at each country’s cultural impact on business culture.

Guanxi

A pivotal aspect of business and business culture is networking and making connections. In Chinese, this is known as guanxi – loosely translated to “connections”. Today, guanxi is becoming more integral to Chinese and non-Chinese speakers alike as the global economy is becoming more integrated. The stronger the relationship is between two people or companies, the stronger the foundation for trust and future business.

In China, there is a lot of importance placed on relationships. This being the case, when it comes to business meetings, it is more about building trust and a relationship. Conversely, in western culture, most business meetings are direct, forward, and to the point.

According to Graham and Lam, in their work The Chinese Negotiation, it is, however, important to note that Guanxi is more than just building a relationship, it is also maintaining the relationship itself along with the idea of reciprocity. If favor is called upon by one member, in return, the other can ask for a request of equal or greater status. Thus, having guanxi is viable for both parties.

In America, relationship and relationship building is a more formal process known as networking. From this derives the idea of “it is about who you know as opposed to what you know”. Thus, as Americans, we build large networks of contacts, as such, we get services such as LinkedIn, etc.

One important difference I’d like to point out is the number and quality of the relationships built. No doubt we see that relationships serve a significant role in each country, however, in America, we tend to build more surface-level connections as opposed to the Chinese, who put in the effort to maintain each relationship.

Mianzi

Miami is often understood as saving or losing someone’s face. Mianzi stems from Confucius’s thought and correlates with respect and/or preventing embarrassment. In western culture, respect is largely an unspoken requirement. Unlike direct translation, it broadly means praising others and maintaining a public self-image (Zhang). The face is relatively simple from a western perspective but plays a huge role in Chinese culture.

In Chinese culture, saving face essentially means that someone maintains their reputation. One can “save face” by defusing cumbersome conflicts or avoiding “losing face” situations (Graham & Lam). Losing face is when your reputation or status is in question due to embarrassment from others or yourself. Loss of face can occur in many ways such as being disrespectful, criticism in a public setting and being closed about others’ beliefs and ideals. Most Chinese will agree that mianzi is critical and must be maintained. In turn, with good mianzi, one can then build guanxi and have a solid reputation (Zhang).

Structure of a Business Meeting

It is critical that during any business meetings, one is respectful and courteous during meetings, while the hosts generally facilitate business throughout the meeting. This is synonymous in both China and the U.S. One major difference is how a business meeting takes place. In America, businesses are driven by quick and immediate decisions because time is money as we all know. However, in China, businessmen are less concerned with time and more concerned with the idea of Guanxi and relationship building. It is not unusual for a business to take multiple days, meetings, and time to determine if an agreement will be met. It is very uncustomary to immediately begin talks of business at a dinner for example. This is unheard of to a U.S counterpart (IES internship seminar). There are also assigned seating and power dynamics that must be followed as a sign of respect (or Mianxi). One example of this is how the host or highest-ranking official will sit at the head of the table or the seat facing the door. The main guess will then sit on the right and the second-highest-ranking to the left. From then, it is just in order by rank. Furthermore, it is unlikely for a lower-ranked official to give their input or disagree with the highest-ranking official. These sorts of guidelines are not as explicit in western culture. However, whether one knows it or not, breaking these “rules” is considered disrespectful in a Chinese setting but is unbeknownst to Americans.

When it comes to business attire, it is normal in both the U.S and China to wear business professional attire to a meeting or casual business dress unless otherwise informed. In both environments, it is safer to dress business professional and then adapt to the “dress code” from my experience. It is worth noting however that it is not unheard of to wear casual attire to an interview or a normal workday, as opposed to the suit and tie standard.

The structure of a business meeting has not changed significantly in either country according to my research and is believed to be an important facet of “business culture” when it pertains to business matters.

Gift Giving

Gift-giving is a custom mostly practiced in china as many regulations restrict gift-giving in America since it can be seen as a bribe. It is also worth noting that as China’s market has westernized in recent years, it too has also adopted some regulations that might regulate lavish (or gifts that can be seen as briberies). Building off this idea, instead of being viewed as a bribe, gift-giving is considered a generous practice in China as it is seen as the exchange of gifts for another’s time and hospitality before the business is conducted. Gifts should not be expensive or extravagant as they should not be a bribe, nor should they evoke the feeling of reciprocation of something of similar status.

Gift-giving is also a way to save face and build a relationship (Guanxi and Mianzi). Though there are some guidelines as to the type of gifts and what they represent. For example, clocks and flowers might represent death, scissors, knives, and letter openers might signify a broken relationship, and anything related to the number “four” as it sounds like “death in Cantonese (Chen). Furthermore, the gift should be given to the leader, and often the Chinese will deny a gift three times before finally accepting it so that they might not appear greedy (Chen.) For this same reason, a gift will never be opened in front of everyone as it preserves face. In America, the standard is no standard, as gift-giving is not a common practice in the U.S. In China, however, we see it as a great way to show respect and build guanxi.

Meeting People

In either country, first impressions matter. From the initial interaction, a “meet and greet protocol” will occur and acts as an indicative factor for the relationship moving forward—both professionally and personally. In both environments, punctuality is vital (Bostock).

When greeting an American guest, it is normal to be welcomed and greeted by someone who is of equal or greater rank. From an American perspective, rank is not normally considered when addressing someone, but rather it is used when one is introducing themselves. Typically, in both business cultures, one’s position defines them as is communicated both in a business context and outside of it as well.

Handshakes also play a significant role in both cultures as it is almost always common when one meets someone. However, Chinese handshakes are a lot more laid back as many American businessmen believe that a handshake represents something about their persona, as a result, they are more firm and aggressive. From a Chinese perspective, this is viewed as “overdone” as the strength in a handshake is not needed whereas in the United States it signifies professionalism and confidence.

When discussing business cards, Chinese business professionals almost always exchange cards but in a very particular manner from a western perspective. Generally, one will transfer their card to another person with two hands, and it is customary to receive the card with two hands as well – this is another sign of respect. Furthermore, one should also look it over to look genuinely interested in it. In America, this would be unnatural as most exchanges of business cards are unorganized compared to Chinese protocol.

It is also important to note that women are not as well respected in Chinese culture as sometimes they will not be acknowledged at a business meeting. While China is working toward gender equality, they are several paces behind the U.S in that aspect as China is very patriarchal in this sense.

Cultural Impact

The facets analyzed are all impacted by each country’s culture in some way shape or form as each country has its own set of traditions and customs that have prevailed throughout the country’s existence. According to the Hostefede Centre, there are a couple of aspects that make up a country’s culture. One idea that I want to focus on from Hostefede that I think effectively summarizes the differences between Chinese and American culture is the idea of idealism.

In Chinese business practices, the culture has a prominent view of individualism. The People’s Republic of China has always been a collective one—meaning people will act for the betterment of the group as opposed to acting in self-interest. In the workplace, we see that decisions are made collectively and are based upon relationships. Even if it is not a necessarily great deal, a Chinese businessman is more likely to engage in a deal where they are worse off if their relationship with the other part is good when compared to their American counterpart. Furthermore, it is frowned upon to disagree with the majority in a Chinese context, especially if you are a lower-ranked person. Maintaining harmony and Mianzi is of the utmost importance as that is a key principle of Confucius’s thought. As a result of the strong collective values, China is ranked very low in individualism according to Hostefede Insights.

In comparison, America has a very high score in individualism—unlike its Chinese counterpart. In America, we are raised to be unique as opposed to conforming to societal values. As such, we have a very individualistic society. As a result, we see individualism as a form of self-expression, independence, and even individual praise. Congratulatory awards are common in Western business culture to praise an individual while in Chinese business culture something of that nature, or the act of accepting something of that nature.

Conclusion

Culture has a strong influence on business practices in different parts of the world as we have seen here in two very specific examples. I imagine that as our countries become more and more globalized, we will see the business cultures converge more and more, though I suspect there will always remain small traces of tradition and values amongst the different practices. We see the convergence as the Chinese business culture has adopted some westernized practices in recent years and western brand influence becomes commonplace in Chinese society. Through technology, globalization is unavoidable for any country that wants to thrive in a more globalized economy. It is also imperative that business professionals acknowledge cultural differences and adapt to them, especially since our two countries are global economic leaders in today’s society.  

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