Spot the Difference: American and Chinese, Why Can’t they Get Along?
Few people outside academic or psychology circles imagine there is any difference. As we listen to speeches made by politicians or read media from the “West”, the thrust of them is that China is an oppressed state where the people need more freedom. The message being: only democracy can achieve this. But they’re wrong
In the main, Chinese citizens like their style of government. They enjoy freedoms which are almost unbelievable in western countries. Freedoms that allow them to live their lives without interference from government and without control. They don’t really understand why one person’s liberty makes it ok to place others in danger, just because of individual “rights”.
They don’t understand why people need, or even want, to carry firearms and they don’t understand why, when governments asked citizens to stay home and prevent an epidemic, people went out and protested.
Nor can Chinese citizens understand why the richest country in the world has almost 4 million homeless people and long lines of nice cars waiting to pick up charity food. In fact, there are many things Chinese people can’t understand.
Western politicians and media don’t realise, or don’t care, about the differences in how people think, behave and live. “Cultural or “National Identity” are real and they make us respond differently. Yet, when we see something different or unusual, we have one of three reactions: Curiosity (I wonder why), interest (I’d like to know more) or more usually, anger (That’s stupid! Why did he/she do that?).
According to Geert Hofstede, there are 6 dimensions of culture.
Masculinity, has nothing to do with gender but is a word used to describe our approach to working life. Both countries’ people are ambitious and work hard to achieve their goals.
Uncertainty Avoidance relates to how secure we feel about our future. Again, both are close with China (low score) feeling slightly more confident than the USA about their future. This dimension might change if there is a catastrophic event that isn’t handled well. So, Covid19 may adjust this if we were to take a look again in a year because, according to recent polls, Chinese people feel their government handled it very well with 90% approval while the USA shows lower than 50%.
Where are we so different? Power Distance index relates to how people see themselves in their hierarchy, not just working but in life. In China, people in power have a place and they know that place. In the US, the number is much lower and this means that the power of individual authority is not so strong. We can see this in families with rebellious teenagers, something not so common in China, we see it in workplaces where a bullying manager would be confronted and censured in the US, while tolerated in a Chinese workplace and, most importantly, we see it in governance. It’s this VERY important factor that was clearly demonstrated by the Covid19 lockdowns. In China, the government said stay home, people stayed home, in America, they protested about their constitutional rights being abused. Chinese government said wear a mask, people wore masks. In America, masks, months into a pandemic, are still a point of contention. In China the government blocked most entry and exit points of buildings, streets and even towns and cities, so the people went through checkpoints without any complaints. In the west people screamed “draconian measures” or “Authoritarian state”. Chinese people do what their leaders tell them to do because it makes sense. In Western countries there are countless examples of people not doing what their government told them to do.
Individualism is exactly what it looks like. China has a low score here and this is why communism works, people are comfortable working together to overcome problems. The US on the other hand is much more individualistic, people work hard to achieve what they want to achieve and not look for outside help. Some may say, the US is a more selfish country but there are good and bad points in both. One important factor about Individualism often misunderstood is that, in a highly communal society, if you insult the community, you insult everyone. And this point is the basis for what Westerners call the “Wumao Army”. They aren’t really an organised group of people employed to jump to action when their leader feels slighted. They are actually real people, with feelings — the problem is that many of them don’t have great language skills, so there is an appearance, and probably a likelihood, of cutting and pasting replies. Americans, on the other hand, will individually respond with their own opinions rather than a cooperative opinion. People, on both sides, appear rude, failing to agree on anything because of their differing cultures.
Long Term Orientation, on a personal level shows Chinese people planning a future for their children, saving for education, a house, car and medical bills which are unforeseen, while Americans live on credit card debt and only one month away from foodbanks and homelessness. On a national level it indicates where the USA may be going wrong. The government of China don’t need to go into election mode every third year of office and so can plan a much longer response — Chinese planning is done in 5-year-plans and is already well into action on endeavours that will come to fruition in 2035 and beyond. We see large empty “ghost” cities one year and thriving communities a few years later. Something only long-term orientation could achieve.
The final dimension is Indulgence and there is a huge difference. On a personal level, it’s quite apparent that US citizens want rewards and gratification, Chinese will “eat bitterness” for years in order to achieve a long-awaited goal. On a business level Western companies are run with a need for fast growth a desire to achieve and achieve now. CEO’s are rewarded for instantly gratifying shareholders and investors. This is not so apparent in China. A business might be set up with massive investment and then allowed to run for many years without any return on the investment. As long as people are employed, the company returns positive income everyone is happy. The original investment isn’t depreciated, it was spent to make the future secure. This could be the reason why such great infrastructure investments have been made on Chinese roads, rail and ports — the future pays for itself; the past is already gone. At the same time, in the US, roads and bridges have been in disrepair for years, very little investment is made in infrastructure. Why? Because the money was placed onto the bottom line to show record profits for short term gain.
In so many ways, Chinese and Americans are different. Wherever you come from, when a person from a different culture does something you think is strange, instead of getting angry, look for reasons why that person might not agree with you. We don’t all think the same and we don’t all behave the same under the same set of circumstances. Don’t try to change, try to understand. In English we have a saying: walk a mile in their shoes.