Understanding China, One Blog at a Time

An American in China

Living and Working in China- Chinese in Meetings- They Say Nothing

Posted by w_thames_the_d on August 11, 2010

When you come to China, and you should, you will find that in meetings they don’t say anything. they seem very non-participative. To a westerner, they seem disinterested , aloof and bored.
The reasons for this behavior are cultural. For Chinese, to ask a question during is to question the authority figure (the speaker), and in ancient times this meant death by the emperor. This is a legacy that they have not overcome as of yet. (Due to the Chinese insecurity about themselves in social situaions, they will say they have generally overcome this habit, so as not to appear backwards, but it is untrue.) Thus, when dealing with the Chinese, you really have to push them to interact, and usually this is fruitless as they wont.
The way Chinese think is that any disharmony in front of the group is horrible, thus asking a question is bad as it may expose a weakness in the logic of the speaker that he has not thought of yet. To the Chinese, each person is a pillar that holds up or supports the whole, and if one pillar does not do its job (ie asking a question instead of supporting), then the other pillars will do so as well. The end result , will then be anarchy and no support and an overall collapse, so they remain silent.
Compare this to the west where we generally think of comments from the crowd or disharmony in general to be equivalent to a ‘white hat hack’. A white hat hack, is internet lingo for people who probe your internet security and disclose your weaknesses so that you can fix them. They have no malicious intentions and either do it out of curiosity or kindness. Western meetings and interactions are similar. We pose arguments to flush out any heretofore unknown or un exposed problems. To the Chinese this is disrespectful.
I have taught here and work here, I have heard a number of executives inquire about how to go about changing this, my advice is to tell the group that you need their help in flushing out a problem, give them a week to prepare (they hate to get caught cold and are horrible at extemporaneous speaking), and if you do this, you may have decent results.

3 Responses to “Living and Working in China- Chinese in Meetings- They Say Nothing”

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