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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