Proper Character and Behavior

Doing business in China is hard if you don't understand suzhiOne of the first things a Western businessman may notice when he arrives in China is how different Chinese people act, talk and behave when compared to the Western social and business environment. These differences can not only cause confusion and delays but in some cases can destroy relationships and torpedo potential business deals. So what exactly are proper attitudes and behavior from a Chinese point of view? And why do the Chinese “refuse to change” to be more in line with what Westerners consider to be international standards of behavior? Unlike Western culture, which has been actively evolving and changing for hundreds of years, Chinese culture has traditionally been much more static, inward-facing, and rooted in the past.

Traditional Chinese beliefs have also emphasized a person’s character, or Sù zhì (素质), which boils down to proper etiquette and the accepted way of behaving both in social and business situations. In addition, Chinese people take great pride in their country and culture, and one reason that many Chinese may find it hard to adapt to the “Western way” of doing things is that many of the Chinese model forms of behavior are stark opposites of the social and behavioral standards held in the West. Some of the more common elements that make up the concept of Sùzhì include the following:

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Modesty and a Low Profile

Chinese people prefer modesty and keeping a low profile both in regard to their own achievements and status as well as their interactions with others. Traditionally, in the course of polite conversation, Chinese people will downplay their own positions and achievements while emphasizing those of others. Additionally, within society, family, work and their own social circles, the average Chinese person will generally not attempt to make waves, or to make themselves stand out overtly when compared to others. In practice, if a work-related project is successful, an employee will often not attempt to claim all the credit, instead deferring to the support given by the company and colleagues. When praised by strangers or friends, an individual will often downplay an accomplishment or character trait. Those who are not as modest or prefer to claim their own accomplishments can be viewed as rude, proud, or braggarts.

Tact and Respect 

Chinese people also place a strong emphasis on respecting the feelings of their friends, family, and colleagues, often by not directly refusing a request. Aside from respecting the feelings of whoever is being spoken to, speaking in a less direct, roundabout manner is also viewed as a proper way to comport oneself, and by talking in this manner one upholds the socially acceptable idea of how to behave as a cultured individual. In practice, Chinese people will use a number of “filler-answers” to either buy time or to put off saying no directly, such as “perhaps,” “maybe”’ “possibly,” and “I understand.” In many cases the word “no” may never actually be spoken by the first party, and it is left up to the second party to figure it out over the course of repeated maybes or unanswered correspondences.

Education and Knowledge

Level of education and related certifications have historically played an important role in defining China’s literary and leadership elite. In ancient China, passing the Imperial examinations not only allowed an individual to attain a high level of prestige in his home town or city, but it also served as the main avenue for advancement in the Chinese bureaucracy. In modern times, high-level educational degrees and such as master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s are highly valued in China, especially those from prestigious institutions. Job seekers feel the need to make themselves stand out by obtaining additional certifications. These highly educated individuals are to a certain degree considered to be more knowledgeable and also afforded more respect.

Proper Etiquette

China (and Asia in general) has always possessed complex hierarchical societies, with many rules and customs aimed at demonstrating politeness and respect to superiors and elders. Forms of address, who one can talk to, where one must sit and how one talks to others all are a part of proper social and workplace etiquette in China. And despite the many different ideas and cultures that influence China’s youth and young white-collar workers in the modern era, decisions, by and large, are still made by the old guard, those who grew up either during the Cultural Revolution or during the rise of Communist China. Chinese who either through ignorance or intent do not observe the proper etiquette and protocols will quickly find themselves viewed as difficult, uncultured or annoying and will find it hard to develop lasting relationships or gain advancement and recognition in their line of work.

Filial Piety

Another form of etiquette that takes a high level of prominence in Chinese society is filial piety, or how one respects and interacts with one’s elder family members. Ancient China long practiced ancestor worship, in which memorials to dead ancestors were displayed in a family temple and obedience and respect were given chiefly to the eldest member of the household. Today, Chinese children and young adults are almost always subject to the wishes of their parents, including where to go to school, what to study, what career to pursue and who to marry. They are also expected to marry and have children by a certain date, and to a certain degree engage in a lifestyle approved of by their parents. Chinese children who deviate from what is expected of them, while not subject to direct ostracism, are instead subject to steady pressure and critique to conform.

How to Deal with Differing Behavior and Attitudes in China

For Westerners in China, the types of behavior that are associated with the concept of Sùzhì, because they are so different from the culture most have grown up with, are both strange and confusing. And while daunting at first, any Westerner visiting China should remember that many potential problems can be easily dealt with through patience, respect and practice. For example, it is indeed possible to receive an answer to an important question despite the evasiveness of a Chinese counterpart. A change of phrasing or venue (i.e. one-on-one) along with polite pressing can in many cases yield results. And while the modesty of Chinese businessmen can prevent them from quickly getting to the point, simple patience and a commitment to developing strong relationships can produce a positive outcome.

I think that Sù zhì is the sum of many different elements and concepts including: ethical standards, educational background, personal accomplishments, communication skills, professional aptitude and social skills. Individuals with a high level of Sù zhì will find it relatively easy to gain the acceptance and attention of their family, relatives, and friends and will be able to easily obtain a definite status and position within their own social circles. For example, an individual with high Sù zhì will be able to make more friends among their classmates and also be able to easily find more people to support him/her. At work an individual with high Sù zhì will be paid attention to more by their boss and meet with more opportunities to advance.

-James Tan, Sales Manager, Shanghai

Although it’s true that Chinese businessmen often do not speak their minds or reveal their true intentions, the longer a western businessman is in China, the easier Chinese facial expressions and body language are to read. This can be complemented by relying on China-based local assistants, employees, and consultants to provide key insights and suggestions.  By showing the patience needed to interact and immerse yourself in Chinese culture, one can gain more easily the respect of Chinese business partners. This also has the benefit of demonstrating insight into the Chinese point of view, which can go a long way to help a Western businessman gain face,  build strong relationships, and demonstrate their own Sùzhì as well.

Thanks for reading!

 Do you have any additional questions about what Sùzhì means in China or how it is interpreted and used by the locals? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Published by Sean Upton-McLaughlin

Sean is a business and communications professional based out of Shenzhen, China. He has worked for Chinese companies for the majority of his career, including well-known smartphone and technology firms. Through his mastery of the Chinese language and culture, as well as his empathy and understanding towards the Chinese point of view, he advises Chinese companies on successfully going global.

10 thoughts on “Proper Character and Behavior

  1. I am working with a Chinese company.It is very difficult to let them understand sometimes.For small issues we have to make them understand and convince them.For example if we need any document from the company they will ask unprofessional and irrelevant questions and seems like they are not convinced with the answers.
    We require a lot of patience and convincing power if working under them.


    1. It is important to know what’s your relationship with this Chinese company. Are you a provider? Are you a client? a Partner?
      When you say “small issues”, how do you convey them? If they are “small” why do they matter?
      There are high chances that you haven’t earned their trust yet, and hence you are being given the cautious “cold shoulder”.
      Reach out if in need of precise advice in your particular situation.


  2. Greetings,

    My situation is a little different, not related to doing business in China but I wonder if you can help point in in the right direction.

    My nephew married a wonderful Chinese lady, Chenyu, and recently this family, including a son and a daughter, moved to Tulsa. They have become especially fond to my wife and me and our extended family.

    But somehow we have offended her and now she refuses all contact. My nephew, Wyatt, says this is part of the Chinese culture and we should patiently wait it out. We don’t know what we did that was so offensive and she won’t say. My wife and her sister went there one day to find out and apparently THAT was the wrong thing to do!!! Chenyu loaded up her kids and fled the scene.

    Anyway, my nephew says this could take years. Meanwhile, it has been several months with no changes in sight.

    Any ideas about how we can offer an apology for something we don’t know to a person who won’t see us? Can you suggest a learning process that could help us understand and possibly discover a way to approach her?

    We are a family all hoping and praying together and looking to learn what, if anything, we can do next.




    1. Hi David,

      Sorry to hear you are experiencing this issue with your nephew’s wife. Here are a few thoughts based on your note:

      1) “This is part of the Chinese culture” is never the best way to view a problem, as it makes it impossible to address. Instead, ask you nephew to help you understand what specifically prompted this falling out, and how it relates to Chinese social/cultural norms. For example, Americans will often be very blunt with criticism or advice, but this can be very embarrassing offensive to some Chinese. BUT, different Chinese people have different views of things, so it’s more important to discover the specific issue.

      2) One things that seems very likely to me is that this woman just moved to a strange country (with her kids) and may be experiencing intense culture shock – this can even happen to those who have no problems communicating in English. So even with no family problems she will need time to adjust.

      3) I agree that approaching her directly (and with multiple people) was not the best choice. She will definitely need time, and I suggest you prepare a few small gifts, which you pass on along to her through your nephew.

      4) I do not think it will realistically take years to resolve, assuming all side are committed to being a family together. Family is extremely important to the Chinese, and having a conflict with family will be very uncomfortable to her. I suggest you talk frequently with your nephew to learn more about this woman, where she is from, what she was used to in China, and how she hopes to interact with all her extended family in the USA.

      5) I also suggest you specifically ask your nephew what American/Western practices/habits may bother his wife. That way you and your family can try adapting your behavior to both show respect and make her feel more comfortable, when she feels comfortable interacting with you again.

      That’s all I can think of for now. Hope this can help a little.


  3. We are fortunate to have 2 students from China stay with us for school. It is a short 2 week visit and we learned of the opportunity with short notice and limited time to prepare or learn about our guests. They are 2 nice, 13 year old boys. I would like to know more about typical kids their age and what is expected interaction with elders and foreigners.


    1. Hi Mary,

      Typical young Chinese boys will likely be studious, shy with people they don’t know and when speaking in English, and respectful of authority figures. Therefore it could be hard to get them to come out of their shells and may require more effort on your part if you want them to fully enjoy the experience.

      On the other hand, as it’s very likely these boys grew up as single children doted on by all their family member – the little emperor complex. If this is the case then you might expect them to be a bit spoiled, and/or not be used to living in a home with multiple children.

      In the end however I would advise going in with as little expectations as possible. Even though the above behavior types are indeed common in Chinese children to a degree, there are always exceptions. I hope this helps.


  4. What’s the original idea of 素質(suzhi) in Chinese culture? And how did the discourse of suzhi transform through
    (1) early 20th century,
    (2) the establishment of PRC regime
    (3) after the economic reform?
    What’s the contemporary definition of sushi nowadays?


  5. Modesty and character are a huge part of the Chinese culture. But, one would be in for a rude awakening to consider most Chinese people modest and tactful.


    1. Thanks for the comment, though from my experience its not quite as simple as that. Chinese society is different from the West and as such has different rules of social etiquette. A Chinese person’s social circle and contacts are close to their whole world, which sometimes can lead to indifference to or the harsh treatment of strangers. Also, the recent economic development of China has created a very competitive and stressful environment for many Chinese, which can also lead to rude behavior.

      It’s not always fair to judge the Chinese by Western standards of social etiquette.


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