By Xiaobo Hu
Director, Center for China Studies, Clemson University
There appear many myths when we talk about cultural differences in terms of West versus East. Many see Western world view as simple as linear and historical, with a definitive beginning and end, but Eastern world view, for instance the Chinese, as cyclical, spiral and dynamic – in business operations, it is not milestones or deadlines but harmony and sustainability are more important for the latter. In reality, however, it is often difficult to distinguish one from another in such a clear-cut fashion.
For example, an American student went to China for a visit this summer and he found that the Chinese used the word “friend” too frequently and too loosely. To his amazement, all the Chinese he met had many friends – they were all friends of someone, in his words. The Chinese he just met even introduced him as a friend to others. On the other hand, a Chinese writer once wrote, “For most Americans, the word ‘friend’ can be used in a very broad sense. Americans are very kind to everyone they meet the first time. They call both casual acquaintances and intimate companions ‘friends.’ …Americans’ being friendly to everyone often makes people with different cultural backgrounds feel confused.”
Indeed we all have our own perception (or misperception) and we all tend to look at other cultures through our own lens. This is natural, but it is also the source of misunderstandings and confusions. While friendship might be defined differently and manifested in various ways or in a specific given context, it is always based on mutual trust – this might be a common ground for all cultures.
In this way, to understand (true) friendship is to understand how friendship is developed and maintained – that is, how trust is built and tested. Common experience can make trust-building seemingly effortless, such as culture, school, and “friend of a friend”; and vice versa.
If in the West, as many believe, a relationship starts with trust granted until one breaks it, the Chinese – and many other Asians – do not grant such trust until one earns it. According to Harvard Business Review, “generally speaking, in the West the default is ‘trust.’” People give each other the benefit of the doubt and consider each other trustworthy until something happens that breaks such trust. Such “blind” trust is absent in the Chinese culture until you actively build it – that is, purposefully exchanging meaningful information to establish a trusting relationship. This is why the Chinese love to quickly develop informal relationships to give each other more time and opportunities to build mutual trust. Such informal opportunities include dinners, parties, and other social activities.
In business interactions, you will often hear that the Chinese build relationships first, and only once that is achieved do they move forward for real business. While it is difficult to restore trust in the West after one breaks it, it is normally easy to maintain the relationship in China after you have established mutual trust. The Chinese don’t forget their friends. This is why the Chinese invited Henry Kissinger back to China every year after he retired from the government, and Xi Jinping “keeps Muscatine, Iowa, to his heart” and made a return trip a quarter-century later after he became the president of China.
While people are equals in a trusting relationship, family provides a hierarchy. The core of family values lies in a structure that involves multiple generations, whereby elders are respected and trusted in the Chinese culture and help younger generations to build strong relationships. The Chinese value familial ties and Chinese families are center to nourishing trusting relationships across generations. China still remains a family-oriented society.
After a generation of “one-child policy,” family networking in China is practically challenged. To extend family networking, the Chinese have started to look into broader common experience as basis for trust and relationship building. New common experiences have developed that bring people together, such as fellow “villagers” from the same birthplace, classmates from the same school, and membership from the same organization. As the population becomes more mobile and pace of life faster, building and maintaining relationships becomes more challenging. People tend to rely more on new internet technology, such as Facebook and LinkedIn in the U.S. and qq and WeChat in China. Although the way to develop relationships tends to converge thanks to new technologies, the emphasis and meaning of relationship building still remain different across cultures.