Cultural Differences, Part One: Relationships East and West

Over the next few months, I’ll post a series of articles on the many cultural differences between Chinese speaking and English speaking people.

Eastern and Western cultural differences is a topic I deal with frequently in my training work. I just delivered a seminar entitled “Cultural Differences in Communication” to a group of Citibank managers last week, and will deliver a somewhat similar talk at the European Chamber of Commerce in a few weeks.

Today’s post deals with some of the differences in how relationships are formed and managed in greater China and the West. We’ll start with a question:

What is the primary basis of a deep friendship?

(a) Shared values and interests, i.e. “You and I think alike on several subjects, and we’re interested in the same things.”

(b) Mutual trust and loyalty, i.e. “I know you’ve got my back.”

(c) Shared identity, i.e. “We both work for X company” or “We’re in the same classes.”

(d) The potential for mutual benefit, i.e. “We can help each other out”or “We can take care of each other.”

If you answered (a), you probably grew up in a Western country such as the United States. You choose your friends based primarily on a shared set of values, on your ability to communicate with and relate to someone, and on shared interests in things like sports, movies, and music. Trust and loyalty (choice b) are important later in the relationship, if it progresses far enough to be considered a deep friendship.

People who answered (c) or (d) probably grew up in an East Asian country such as Taiwan.

Personal relationships in many East Asian countries are often formed for very pragmatic reasons. It is very common for people to work together to achieve a goal and help each other out as friends based primarily on the benefits they can provide to each other. Certainly, trust and loyalty are important dynamics in these relationships, just as they are in the West.

This does NOT mean that people in this part of the world won’t enter into friendships with another person because they like that person. It also does NOT mean that everyone is looking for an angle. It simply means that relationships here are often based on a sense mutual benefit or shared identity, far more than they are in the West. Some people have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” in their phone lists. These friends are often mentally categorized by what they are able to do for person who considers them friends, and by what the person who considers them friends is obligated to do for them.

In greater China, local people are often shocked to learn that foreigners who live here aren’t immediately friendly with other foreigners. “Aren’t you all foreigners?” they ask. It is unfathomable that such a shared identity doesn’t generate feelings of friendship.

A few more features of relationships in the East:

-Duty often trumps love. A Chinese person will be polite to an irascible uncle not because he likes him, but because it is his filial duty to put up with whatever the old curmudgeon dishes out. A person will help out a younger classmate or a junior member of her company because she has a responsibility to do so based on her higher status in the group.

-Friends may be called upon to help in ways that are quite inconvenient to them, and they are expected to offer assistance when it is asked for. Saying no is not really an option if you are a true friend. However, if your friend adheres to his own cultural mores, you will be richly rewarded for the effort you have made to help your friend. An organic accounting of favors granted is kept, and it is necessary to repay the giver of the favors with a reward that may surpass the value of the favor granted.

These two dynamics (duty and reciprocity) do come into play in Western countries, but not the extent that they do in the East. For example, in the United States, people are likely NOT to speak to a hypercritical, grumpy old uncle, and while people will try to grant their friends’ requests, they do not feel obligated to go far out of their way to deliver a favor.

Next Article: Communication Styles East and West

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7 Comments

Filed under Culture

7 responses to “Cultural Differences, Part One: Relationships East and West

  1. Very astute observations, True!

  2. truettblack

    Thanks very much Maoman. I’ll post more articles on the same topic in the coming weeks.

  3. Pingback: Cross-Culture Tweets - Week 13 of 2009

  4. Very insightful. I once read an example, where a Chinese student had an important exam and really needed to study. Then her friend called and wanted to her to accompany her for shopping. The duty to accompany the friend trumped her personal concern for studying.
    A Westerner would have said “I’d love to join you, but really have to study tonight. Maybe next week?”

  5. truettblack

    Thank you for your comments yagosingapore. I actually just returned from Singapore. Beautiful place!

  6. Bob K.

    This is absolutely superb–it clearly explains the first principles of understand that are necessary to having a true and meaningful relationship with someone from China/Taiwan/HK .Until these concepts are mastered and fully internalized, serious frustration will ensue.

    Like the author of this article, my spouse is a Chinese immigrant. I live these concepts every day. I speak Chinese every day. And when my mother-in-law is in town I live them to an even greater extent! And even then, I can read this and still gain insight.

    Thanks True!

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