13 Major Cultural Differences Between China and the United States
It is always interesting to study other cultures, and it is extremely important to do just that if you are going to have interactions with them. You don’t want to insult someone or embarrass yourself and your own culture. China is one of those interesting cultures mainly because what we usually know about the country is through movies or the local Chinese restaurant. What I’ve learned over the years is that that knowledge is usually useless. A sincere study of a culture is the only way to truly appreciate the differences.
So, being an American what do I see as the 13 biggest cultural differences between the two countries? It took a long time to narrow it all down since we could get so detailed that an encyclopedia would be the end result. So, I have focused on 13 major cultural differences between China and the United States.
These differences do not make either culture better or worse than the other one. It just shows their differences which has been created through centuries of history and development. China can trace its traditions and customs for thousands of years. America is still a small baby of a nation that has had very few traditions of its own but has become such a melting pot of cultures that there is almost no specific American culture that can be applied across the board. This makes both cultures unique and worthy of study and respect.
13 Cultural Differences Between America and China
- Social Structure
- Business Relations
- Recognition of the Dead
- Time Sensitivity
- Lack of Person Space
- Respect for Elders
1. Social Structure
In China, the social structure is formal and hierarchical. You know where you fit in the structure, and you abide by the rules there. There is no crossing into other areas. In America, it is much looser and informal. It is not uncommon to see those of various social levels socializing and knowing each other. There are very few lines that socially are not allowed to be crossed. This can cause problems in business relationships if the visiting culture is unaware of it.
Specifically, this type of cultural practice is reinforced in China due to their political structure. China is a communist country, so the government exerts extreme control over the population, censoring media and conducting personal surveillance. With such power invested in the government, regular people are not allowed to speak or act out against the regime, as doing so results in severe punishment.
If you are planning on conducting business in China or expecting an extended stay, it might be useful to know that the direct way that most Americans approach issues is not the way to go in China. Direct conflict or confrontation over issues is highly frowned upon. It doesn’t matter that the “truth” needs to be spoken, respect and honor to each person supersede that. To prove a point and show yourself in the right, even over business issues, is considered shameful and should be avoided.
What Is Individualism?
Individualism is a cultural value that emphasizes an individual having control over their own ambitions over those of the group that they belong to.
3. Self: Individualism vs Collectivism
The Chinese look more at the group collective than at individualism. America has become known for its push of individualism which has been a source of conflict with other cultures that look collectively. A person from China is more prone to look at how their acts affect the whole instead of how it affects them personally. They are more willing to give up and sacrifice for the greater good. America’s individualism has been its backbone and the reason for its success as a world power, but when visiting China, it needs to be reined in.
For the Chinese, each person fits into the greater body of the nation, so individual accomplishments are downplayed. This is in stark contrast to the American ideal of individualism, where the self is the most important thing, and individual accomplishments are praised.
What Is Collectivism?
Collectivism is a cultural value that is characterized by an emphasis on cohesiveness among individuals and prioritization of the group over self.
The reputation of the individual is very important in China. If an action will humiliate someone or ruin a reputation, it is avoided. When shame occurs, the person sacrifices their job or whatever it is that will heal the shame. In America, reputations come and go overnight and in the end usually does not matter, the end result is more of the focus. A person is more likely to overlook a reputation to get the job done.
China has begun to implement a "social credit system" wherein each individual is assigned a social credit score based on their actions. Negative actions that damage one's reputation such as smoking in a non-smoking area, buying too many video games, and getting speeding tickets, will negatively impact a person's social credit.
5. Business Relations
When doing business in China, be prepared for much socializing. Business becomes secondary as the parties get to know each other better. If it delays a contract, that is perfectly acceptable as long as the correct social time is allotted for. In America, business associates are usually more aloof. In an American business meeting, there might be some social gathering with the associates, but the business itself is more important, and the socializing gets sacrificed because of the cultural imperative to close deals.
Chinese society places high values on the morals of their people. Marriage is not encouraged until the late twenties. In fact, dating is discouraged early in a young adult’s life, and proprieties are expected to be held up. American culture is much more relaxed, and some could even argue that there needs to be more moral emphasis.
7. Recognition of the Dead
One of the time-honored traditions of the Chinese is the recognition of the dead. Once a year, all members of a family visit the gravesites of each ancestor and pay their respects. Honoring ancestors is very important in Chinese culture. This is in direct contrast to most Americans who rarely know where the majority of their ancestors are laid to rest. This might be due to the fact that most Americans are immigrants who either have lost the information on grave locations or the locations are in foreign countries. China’s culture is much older, and the percentage of immigration is far less.
Humility is a revered virtue in Chinese culture. The success of one’s business or personal life is downplayed while in America the successes are lauded. Most Americans in the fast business world consider humility a sign of weakness. This can be an issue that hurts inter-cultural relations. Be very sensitive to comments and actions in the presence of another culture.
9. Time Sensitivity
Crossing cultures for business can be frustrating when it interferes with getting the job done. Most Americans are very time sensitive when it comes to meetings and deadlines. If the meeting was to commence at 2:00, then all parties are to be present at that time. The Chinese do not view time as an absolute but more as a suggestion. Concern is not expressed for a meeting starting late or ending at a different time. The same can be applied to deadlines. If a report is due on Friday, an American would be waiting for that report to be received before the end of the business day. The Chinese would not worry if it showed up several days later.
Being sensitive to another person’s needs is very important in Chinese culture. It is expected that you will respect the other person and treat them well. Their needs are met at each encounter. Respect ties into reputation as those individuals who do not respect others will be shunned in Chinese society. This notion of respect is a characteristic that unfortunately has fallen on the wayside in most American circles. Americans are more concerned with their own image, and they tend to not think of respecting others.
In China, the vast amount of the population are ethnically Han Chinese, and they can trace their lineage back to ancient China. Due to a more homogenous ethnic makeup, there is more of a collectivist society in the country at large. Thus, China is less focused on respecting and accepting cultural diversity.
In the United States, there has always been a mix of different ethnicities and culture, forming a unique mix that helps to embody American individualism. America has long been known as a melting pot for different cultures as it is one of the most diverse countries on the planet. This is something embraced by most Americans, but it is not something the Chinese are accustomed to.
12. Lack of Personal Space
With China being so densely populated, most Chinese are used to cramped living spaces and crammed transportation. The concept of personal space is not the same as in the U.S. as the Chinese do not find it offensive to be physically close to someone.
Chinese cities, in particular, are some of the most densely populated places on the planet. China has six cities that contain over 10 million inhabitants, meaning that the Chinese are used to being in massive crowds at all times.
In the U.S. people tend to take their personal space seriously, and they do not enjoy being too physically close to another person.
13. Respect for Elders
Going back to the ancient days of Confucius, the Chinese have practiced reverence and respect for both ancestors and elders. In Chinese culture, the older someone is the wiser and more respected they are. Their accumulated wisdom is a great source of inspiration for the younger generations.
Chinese families are expected to take care of their elders, and it is looked down upon the family if they send their elderly to a retirement home or a similar situation. The elderly are looked to as a source of inspiration and reverence, and the traditional Chinese family unit contains the parents, children, and grandchildren in it.
This is in sharp contrast to the American model where children are supposed to be completely separate from their parents after they are legal adults.
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© 2009 Rebecca Graf