This is the third and final part of a three part series of posts by Jason Patent, a China market access consultant with years of on the ground experience and all sorts of degrees from top schools (including a Ph.D from Berkeley) that qualify him to discuss how Chinese culture is likely to impact your doing business with China. Jason’s first post is here and his second is here.

Here is his third:

Human beings stereotype. It’s part of our wiring. There’s no getting around it.

In China you will be dealing with your own stereotypes of Chinese people. You could either pretend they’re not there and have them sink your business, or you can acknowledge them and re-frame them into more positive ways of thinking. It’s up to you.

Here are 9 common stereotypes you’re likely to have in whole or in part, and ways to re-frame them:

1. The Chinese are out to cheat me.

China has been through a lot of tough history, over thousands of years and even up to very recent times. Chinese people have had to make tough choices in a world of scarcity. This mentality has been passed down through the generations. No Chinese does anything a Westerner wouldn’t do if fighting for survival.

The upshot: Cross your T’s and dot your I’s. Be prudent, not paranoid.

2. The Chinese think they’re superior.

The Chinese are legitimately proud of their amazing cultural accomplishments. Think of the food, the monuments, the language, and on and on. Chinese give respect where it’s due: to Westerners for their advanced technology and social institutions, and to themselves for what they’ve done.

The upshot: Allow yourself to admire what there is to admire, while keeping your cool.

3. The Chinese lie. 

People from every culture lie. What Westerners call “lying” in China is often just a more subtle form of communication than we’re used to. China is what’s known as a “high context” culture: information is assumed to be in the background — the context. The more you learn about the assumed context, the better you’ll get at seeing the meaning behind the words.

The upshot: Get trained on Chinese communication style. Learn as much as you can about the Chinese mindset, so that you know what background assumptions people bring to the conversation.

4. The Chinese go back on their word.

Shaped for millennia by a fickle, resource-poor environment rife with natural disasters, the Chinese see the world as constantly in flux. Circumstances change, and it’s foolish to set a plan in stone now for an imagined future, when it might not be a fit for the actual future. It’s best to remain adaptable and flexible.

The upshot: Be ready for your counterparts to ask for changes to contracts. Understand that in China the contract is often seen as the beginning of a relationship, not a fixed definition of reality.

5. The Chinese are always stalling for time. 

Like any business counterpart anywhere in the world, the Chinese have strategies for getting what they want. A common one is to use home court to their advantage. It’s easier on the Chinese if things take longer than it is on you.

Upshot: Be ready and set reasonable expectations that things probably aren’t going to happen quickly.

6. The Chinese are stingy. 

The Chinese are thrifty. Again, over millennia the Chinese have often had to scrape together meager livings out of a hostile, overcrowded environment. Every resource is precious, and could disappear at a moment’s notice if not carefully guarded.

The upshot: Negotiation is not viewed as a win–win proposition. Be thrifty with your resources too, and meet the Chinese on their own zero-sum terms.

7. The Chinese don’t care about quality. 

Everyone cares about quality. But when it comes to priorities, sometimes it’s more important to the Chinese to save some resources than to make something that fits Westerners’ high standards. See above about precious resources.

The upshot: Be fastidious and unrelenting in your QC. Get feet on the street and keep them there.

8. The Chinese don’t care about their environment. 

The world of the average Chinese person is relatively small. People are focused — narrowly, from a prosperous Western perspective — on day-to-day concerns like having enough to eat and a roof over their heads. It might be nice to have a cleaner environment, but for many Chinese that’s a luxury.

The upshot: Instead of complaining about the awful air, imagine what it would be like if you didn’t get to leave it in a week or two.

9. The Chinese hate Westerners.

In fact Westerners are much admired in China. What Westerners perceive as “hatred” is usually more a vague sense of suspicion. Like everything else, this results from the thought habits of the past, especially the past century and a half, which saw Westerners exploit and mistreat China. All this means is that you have to earn their trust.

The upshot: Behave in a way that is worthy of trust, and trust will come. With time.

Categories can be useful. Reasoned, informed judgment can be useful. Stereotypes have zero business value. Get savvy about your own stereotypes and re-frame them. Not only will you feel better and get along better, but your business will do better.

  • Okay, admittedly I tend to be upset by authoritarian “is” statements, as in “blank is blank,” and my expectation–based on the title–of “stereotypes” was turned upside down. That is, I expected commonly held factitious perceptions to be challenged.
    Instead, having surmounted my own preconceptions, I found an interesting article that posed Western perceived notions relative to Chinese behavioral traits, which apparently for Patent has a basis in truth, and placed same into a Chinese context. In other words, same behavior, just a different explanation of motives. Thus, forgetting about the notion of “stereotypes,” the reading of Patent’s observations of some typical behavioral traits of Chinese negotiators becomes rather informative. Alternatively, taken out of context, oddly enough his perceptions could easily lead to stereotypes themselves.
    Finally, I sense that the shared perceptions are largely based on older Chinese who experienced various cultural events quite unlike that experienced by younger Chinese. I would like to see a “4th” blog that would compare the behavior traits of older and younger Chinese business and government people.

  • hanmeng

    By American standards, the Chinese certainly do lie more. They lie to other Chinese almost as much as they do to foreigners, and they do it to protect miànzi: their own face, the face of third parties, or maybe even the face of the person they’re talking to. Understanding all the context in the world may help understand why they feel force to lie, but it won’t necessarily make finding out the truth any easier.

  • John

    The author is one more of those foreigners that feel they need to apologize for the Chinese. The funny thing is that the Chinese themselves are not so apologetic about their own ethical problems.

  • outcast

    “China has been through a lot of tough history, over thousands of years and even up to very recent times. Chinese people have had to make tough choices in a world of scarcity. This mentality has been passed down through the generations. No Chinese does anything a Westerner wouldn’t do if fighting for survival.”
    And Europe had it easy? Until now European countries were constantly at war, some of which were the most vicious and brutal in the history of the world.
    “The Chinese are legitimately proud of their amazing cultural accomplishments. Think of the food, the monuments, the language, and on and on. Chinese give respect where it’s due: to Westerners for their advanced technology and social institutions, and to themselves for what they’ve done.”
    Food and monuments is hardly an accomplishment, and quite frankly China has accomplished nothing for 600 years, and what accomplishments they had were matched more than 200 years ago or in some cases even earlier. Existence is not an accomplishment, going to the moon was. When they are the first to do something that spectacular, then then they will get more respect.

  • SMI

    I have read earlier two posts and this third one is again fantastic, the 9 points are really well cited and truly represent what goes on out there. Thanks.

  • Shanghai Ty

    Here’s a question I have for Jason Patent: You say that categorization and informed, reasoned judgment can be useful but that stereotypes have “zero business value.”
    My question is: Is it possible to have a negative generalization about a people that is also reasoned and informed? Or does the simple fact that the generalization is negative prove ipso facto that the observation cannot be true?
    After noting with amusement your tortuous attempts to explain why Chinese lying is not really lying and why Chinese cheating, stinginess, arrogance, etc, are all due to extenuating circumstances, I think this post could be re-titled: “Nine ways to spin the true but unflattering generalizations you might have about the Chinese into somewhat less true versions — so that you don’t run afoul of sophisticated thought police like myself.”

  • Jon

    This is an excellent article. I don’t see many pieces that portray cultural perceptions accurately, but I think this one does. Thanks for posting it.

  • Yawnnnnnn….

  • Handan

    very sensible stuff. I can well imagine some labelling him a China apologist…
    The consistant thread in Jason’s advice is a historical perspective. That really helps with keeping your cool, yeah.

  • Marcus Gervasino

    For an expert, nowhere does he mention the amorality of the average Chinese businessman. A lack of understanding the difference between right and wrong. That’s a huge omission related to an atheist state in which Government is the moral guardian.

  • outcast

    I’d also like to add that steroetypes exist because the majority of people in a certain catagory will fit that description. While that doesn’t mean everyone is that way, statistical groupings always have outliers, it does allow a useful tool to predict the opposing sides behavior and decisions, and adjust your strategies accordingly.

  • Twofish

    I think that the author is totally missing where stereotypes come from. Once upon a time, I remember listening to a social scientist talk about police, and he pointed out that police people often have extremely negative impressions of the ethnic groups they work with, and this comes in from the fact that when the police deal with said ethnic group, they are invariably dealing with criminals and social outcasts from said group. You can see this by the fact that the ethnic group changes and the attitudes are similar. He pointed out the fact he knew of an Irish police person that was quite nice, but had the strongest prejudices against Greeks.
    I see this sort of thing in business a lot. I’ve talked to Chinese that have say pretty much the same thing about Americans (can’t be trusted, will cheat you, horrible business partners) than Americans say about Chinese, and if you look closely at why that is, you’ll find the same sort of structural situations. If you go somewhere new in which you do not have any social connections and you try to do business, you are painting a huge target on yourself, you are going to attract people that are out to take your money, and you are going to develop rather negative impressions of the group that you are dealing business with.

  • Twofish

    Mao Ruiqi: Thus, forgetting about the notion of “stereotypes,” the reading of Patent’s observations of some typical behavioral traits of Chinese negotiators becomes rather informative.
    Except they are utterly false in the social context that I work in. In my business, Chinese negotiators, business people, and government officials don’t act very differently from American, Arab, or Mexican negotiators, business people or government officials.
    One other thing about my business, is that I’ve never really been in a negotiating situation in which it has been “Western versus Chinese.” My business is globalized enough so that invariably you have mixed teams of Western and Chinese on both sides. Even in situations where you are dealing with the Chinese government, you are usually in a situation where you have “Western business + one part of the government” negotiating with “local business + another part of the government.” If you are in a situation in which everyone in China is on the “other side” then its pretty much pointless for you to try to negotiate anything so you don’t even try.
    The fact that the teams are “mixed” means that any insights about “how Chinese think” are pretty much useless. Also you’ll find that what school someone went to and what companies they have worked for is a much stronger determinant of how they behave than their ethnicity. Tell me that they are Chinese, and that means nothing. Tell me that they worked for bank X in role Y, for 20 years, and I can come up with some stereotypes about how people in bank X in role Y behave.
    Another issue is that if you talk about Chinese versus Western, then what do you do about the Russians and Indians on your team or on their team?

  • Twofish

    Hanmeng: By American standards, the Chinese certainly do lie more.
    I really don’t think that this is the case. The difference is that if you are an American in the United States, you can better pick up when someone is outright lying to you, and you can also pick up in situations in where someone explicitly says one thing, but from the context, you know something else is happening. If you go to China (or Mexico or Peru), you are not going to pick up on these cues.
    Something that I *do* think is the case is that Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular have a reputation for being blunt and not caring about social conventions. There is a structural reason for this. If I’m in NYC, and I have to say something to a Hasidic Jew from the the Ukarine, I have to be very blunt, because if I’m subtle, they aren’t going to understand what I’m trying to say. Rather than saying hint at this, I have to say “You are stepping on my foot, stop it” because if I try to be subtle, they aren’t going to get what I’m saying.
    But I don’t think this is a US/Chinese distinction. People from Shanghai and Hong Kong have a reputation for being loud and blunt for the same reasons, and people from the rural south have all sorts of unspoken conventions. Also, communications in large corporations is *extremely* contextual. You just will not see someone write an e-mail saying “I think the CEO is a big fat idiot” but you can pretty quickly figure out from hints that someone is thinking that.
    I should point out that Chinese have a stereotype of Americans (and New Yorkers) as being blunt, rude, loud, and obnoxious, and I have used that stereotype to my advantage. Part of what has happened is that when you have something that has to be done, and something uncomfortable that has to be said, you bring in an outsider to say what everyone already knows but can’t be said. So in those situations I go into my “rude and obnoxious American” role.

  • pug_ster

    I think there’s alot of prejudice out there that some Americans think that they are justified in cheating off Chinese people because they are ‘dishonest.’ I don’t know what kind of ‘American Standards’ out there, but I find it that Westerners are more dishonest. I run a business where I deal with Americans and Chinese, Chinese paid every time without problems and more more than half of the time Americans that I deal with try to skimp me out on payments. And this one American I have to take him to court because his check bounced and lie to me about that he paid me in cash. Now I am trying not to do business with Americans because I don’t think they can pay.

  • Twofish

    Shanghai Ty: My question is: Is it possible to have a negative generalization about a people that is also reasoned and informed?
    Not really, because by generalizing you are already putting in a filter that limits your view of the situation.
    Shanghai Ty: Or does the simple fact that the generalization is negative prove ipso facto that the observation cannot be true?
    It’s true to the person making the observation, but it may be utterly ridiculous to someone that is looking at things from other viewpoint.
    The fact that you are talking about “us” and “them” usually already says that the generalization is broken. Usually what happens with stereotypes is that you have “Group A=”us rich people” and “Group B”=”them poor people.” Or “Group A=local people” “Group B=foreign people.” Having a stereotype tells you a lot about how Group A interacts with Group B, but it doesn’t tell you very much about “Group A” or “Group B.”

  • Twofish

    Let me put on my “rude and obnoxious” American hat on and say that the posts here have been absolutely dreadful. The author is trying to sell consulting services, but I can’t imagine any large company actually wanting those services.
    One thing that you find is that people in business often have very low opinions of people from academia, and posts like these are reasons why.
    1) If you are any sort of multi-national corporation, then these sorts of posts are “fortune cookie” pieces of advice that are largely totally useless. Any multi-national that I’ve ever dealt with already has a diverse staff from a dozen countries including China, and have already figured out the hard way, what to do and what not to do. Go into any major high tech company, and you’ll find that a large fraction of their staff including senior management is Chinese. One *big* advantage that American corporations have is that they’ve already figured out how to get Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Mexicans, Africans, and Europeans to work as a single team. If you have negative stereotypes of Chinese people (or Mexicans or French people), then as an American company, you are going to find it pretty much impossible to do business in the United States, much less China.
    2) The advice that companies really need tends to be extremely specific and focused, and not general and vague. If you are sending people to Shanghai, then the people you are sending want to know are specific things like how the school system works, what health care is like, what is the typical price for rent, how payroll works. The vague cultural stuff, you can largely figure out once you get there. The analogy about selling lemonade in Midtown is useful but back fires in a big way. Knowing vague cultural stuff about NYC is pretty useless. Knowing that Midtown East is a ghost town on Saturdays is pretty important.

  • Thank you Jason for putting yourself out there for 3 articles in a row, which given the quite informed readership of this blog means you are definitely in for some *bracing* discussion.
    I’d like to take issue with one aspect of your post. I think it is completely incorrect to state the Chinese have historically lived in a resource poor environment. In fact the complete opposite is true.
    China has had greater food and materials resources available to it, for its entire history, than any major zone on earth. That’s why the population is so large and the cultures are so diverse.
    Think about it like this, if China were resource poor then why doesn’t it have the population density of Mongolia or Siberia? Answer: Because China can in fact produce more food than just about anywhere else per capita except possibly coastal SE Asia. China’s mineral, forestry, fishing and oil resources are also enormous. China, similar to the US, has a continental economy with excellent access to the sea on the eastern coast.
    I think there are many important factors influencing Chinese business strategy and ethics but basic resource scarcity is not one of them.

  • Dan (another Dan)

    Outcast,
    You don’t really need a lot of reasons to be proud of something, especially your own heritage (or country if you prefer). I understand your comment is in response to the article though.
    Surviving is something to be admire, and with due respect to European “achievements” in any field, not just the sciences and economics, nearly all of those “achievements”, especially the famous ones in the last 200-500 years, has been a product of many people’s work and nations efforts outside of the European social groups (or the West if you prefer). This is a fact everyone is coming to terms with. In many ways, Chinese society has benefited just as much from the non-Chinese (of the times), throughout their glorious realms, be it Han, Tang, Song, etc. No country, civilization, continent or region is an island, free of outside influences (if that analogy makes sense). History is more complex with regards to progress so it’s sort of pointless to say this civilization or that society hasn’t done anything for the last xxx number of years.
    In a way, I’m sort of extending the comment made by twofish regarding multi-national corporations, with the statements I made so far.
    Adding on to stereotypes and the workplace;One secret of getting so many different types of individuals working together is to not but in their personal affairs. Well, it’s not quite a secret but basically, don’t think or take into account too much of what the employees do in their spare time, be it cultural activities or hobbies, as long as they can get the job done. Many stereotypes have to be put aside to get work done. When I was a student, I volunteered at a research project with a local clinic, affiliated with a pharmaceutical company. Many students and researchers themselves were foreigners, a lot of them from different African countries. I had some stereotypes in mind, but everything had to put aside to complete the tasks. In fact, while I was working, I didn’t even bother thinking of the stereotypes at all (which I suspect is what happens in a lot of diverse places). Even if stereotypes for people still persists, as long as they keep them in their heads, and not disturb the work process, that’s the best we can hope for, honestly speaking.

  • Jerome Cole

    Jason Patent is pushing dimestore multi-culturalsim. If you actually tried to put his nonsense into action in a business setting you would regret it.

  • outcast

    “Surviving is something to be admire”
    Beggars survive, do they deserve as much respect as Bill Gates?
    “This is a fact everyone is coming to terms with. In many ways, Chinese society has benefited just as much from the non-Chinese (of the times), throughout their glorious realms, be it Han, Tang, Song, etc. No country, civilization, continent or region is an island, free of outside influences (if that analogy makes sense). History is more complex with regards to progress so it’s sort of pointless to say this civilization or that society hasn’t done anything for the last xxx number of years. ”
    Actually it isn’t pointless. 1000 years ago Europe was going through the Dark Ages and really had little to show for itself since the fall of Rome. At the same time China was the world’s leading innovator, it was no accident in that period it was also the most powerful empire in the world. So what went wrong with China? Probably the biggest was the introduction of neo-confucianism which advocated much more rigid heirarchies and ways of thinking combined with a more and more inward looking society. So why does it matter? Because it shows the superiority or inferiority of certain ways of thinking/cultures.

  • Stephan

    China has 1.3 billion people. Stereotyping won’t help.

  • Dan (another Dan)

    Outcast,
    Like I said, history is way more complex than narratives. Also what happens to the common people as well as those outside the famous figures in history, often has different perspective than the ones that are generally more well-known. In several ways, China has always been chaotic with regards to the rule of Central authorities over a huge land.
    The Dark ages in Europe was probably no more than a few centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Coinciding with China’s well known era, the Song were also many kingdoms and empires in the Middle East and South Asia which in many ways were probably just as or even more innovative than China. Though to be honest, I myself don’t know exactly how to critique history, there are many examples you can find to sort of understand my point.
    In several ways, before the usage of the International standards of weights and measurements, which took a long time but finally formulated around the first half of the 20th century (after many places around the world were colonized, occupied or were greatly affected by Western civilizations for a few centuries), before that happened everyone in a sense was going at their own pace and was relatively equal in terms of technological efficiency. Even during the late phases of the Industrial revolution, the humiliation of China period, etc. a lot of the new advances with machines and labor were still quite crude and despite the knowledge gained during that era, the output of Chinese indigenous methods pretty much accomplish the same tasks. The British may have had HK after the Opium wars, but to be honest, they didn’t gain that much benefits because of what I just said. Well, the Opium wars were also quite complicated and not entirely due to technology of the British (and eventually the French) and incompetence of the Chinese as often stated or assumed.
    I could go on and on, but everything I have say is discussed quite frequently on many blogs and forums regarding Chinese history. In a sense (this is from my own words), China since it’s confirmed conception till the end of the Imperial system (roughly 1400-1200 BCE to 1911 CE, many people have different ideas about the first date, but from what I learned, most people only go by how early are written records) was merely going at her own pace of things, with some strong periods and some weak periods, and was technologically sophisticated in some areas and not quite in others. Every civilization was like that before the adoption of International standards of weights and measurements. That’s kind of why I say it’s pretty pointless to “always” compare and contrast history (a little is useful) since not everyone was playing the same game with the same rules. Also, just like history, culture is also a very complicated topic to discuss as well.

  • Dan (another Dan)

    Outcast,
    I should have mentioned something regarding your putting man on the moon comment. That happened in the 60s, which also the Internet was formed. That was in the US. However, culturally speaking, the US in the 60s was probably not as pretty or ideal as it could be. Heck, even in the 70s, some parts of the US still didn’t have electricity. In fact, many advances in the modern era, was often due to chaotic times and urgent pressures.
    Culture is ever-changing as well, some things stay the same but that’s often the universal values or conditional (due to environment or whatever situation they are in at the moment, many Chinese weren’t always frugal to the extreme or had to be, at least not anymore than other peoples depending on the times and other factors).
    I mean, if you want to make a business deal with Americans in the 60s, in several ways, it will be different than now. Business deals or diplomacy with China during the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing was definitely different. Even within the same dynasty, many cultural issues with those activities were conditional. I hope this can help a little bit of where I’m coming from, why I think life is a bit more complex (or interesting if you prefer) than we assume.

  • All very forgiving of Chineseness. The world is tough, history was hard, boohoo cry me a river. The truth is Chinese people have yet to adapt their backward culture to the Western nation they aim to build. Almost all of Chinese culture has disappeared and we are left with a Western adapted Chinese culture. Hopefully as the years go on, China will become less and less Chinese.