What do you think about my observation?
At the training school I have worked for during the past few years, I have had the opportunity to sit down and chat with small groups of Chinese professionals about their opinions on various matters. Somewhere in the back of my head has been lurking in my head that I should start writing down what I have learned because it is possible that my experience could become valuable someday. I just thought I would leave my very first one here to start a conversation and find out if I am in fact full of 胡扯. And yes, I do know this is anecdotal and not scientific.
“I hope to someday become a manager in this company.”
Question: if one of your Chinese subordinates said this to you, what would you think?
Typical American answer: wow, this person is self-confident, and since this person has expressed ambition, perhaps we can count on him or her to work hard to obtain that dream.
Typical Chinese answer: wow, this person really doesn’t understand society. Chinese culture dictates that we should be modest, and this person clearly isn’t. Furthermore, this person has too many plans. We might not be able to trust this person as he or she might work solely for his or her profit. This person might even try to get my job. It might be better to keep this person at a distance.
What we can take home from this:
- Chinese may not be willing to tell you if they want something. To understand what Chinese want, it is sometimes more important to watch carefully than to listen carefully. Employees who have ambition are likely to try to obtain their dreams through hard work or through careful cultivation of relationships.
- Furthermore, if a manager fails to notice that an employee is hinting he or she wants something, that manager is risking inadvertently causing discouragement in that person, possibly worse.
- In a nutshell: keep your eyes open and don’t expect things to always be spelled out for you.
bababardwanJuly 22, 2010, 09:12 AM
"I do know this is anecdotal and not scientific"
...there's nothing wrong with anecdotal stuff..in fact I love reading anecdotal stuff ..can be very entertaining and informative depending on how it's presented. It's only a problem imho when anecdotal stuff is presented as if it was fact that can be broadly applied. Thanks for your insights here. I think they are observations worth making. :)
xiao_liangJuly 22, 2010, 09:33 AM
I think it's a key difference in the hierarchy of society. There's no difference (that I've seen ) in the level of ambition, but there's a chasm of difference in how it's acceptable to present that ambition.
There's also the notion of reverence for superiority that I find fascinating. It seems to me (again, anecdotally), that people in chinese society are often accorded respect merely due to their position, and often just their age. As in, they have to be worth respect, simply because they've reached that position, or that age. In my case, I find that difficult to accept, as often (particular where I work, in public service) it's possible to graduate to the top simply by sitting in one place for a long period of time.
I think in the West we accord respect where ability or worth is demonstrated, rather than by dint of age or position.
(Apart from the Queen. But that's another argument :p)
bodaweiJuly 22, 2010, 09:40 AM
I can tell you that in a few classes I have started by asking people to write down their plans upon graduation - eg. the company they hope to work for. (Classes are 3rd and 4th year, mix of majors but mainly economics.)
- 50% - 60% say that they hope to do a higher degree - some are already planning to get into a PhD program, some are planning to do their postgrad studies overseas
- after that group the most common response is to say that they want to run their own business (I think this is curious for economics majors - they are much more 'business' focused than we are in Australia)
- next largest group name a big name company, sometimes a foreign owned company
- next - those that say 'don't know yet' (the smart answer)
- the odd few say they want to work for the Government (jobs in Beijing are the most attractive and the hardest to get - only the brightest get these jobs)
Observation: in general I don't see a lot of the traditional modesty you would expect (although admittedly they are writing this down, not announcing it to the class) - I wonder if this reflects a 'new generation' speaking? I also wonder if this is the difference between saying and doing - quite a number of students talk about Confucian values & the 'golden mean' (aiming for a harmonious middle path) guiding their behaviour.
I must admit that modesty in China does baffle me as I too see some behavior that isn't modest, at least by my definition. Then again, I do find that if I just try to chit-chat with a typical Shanghai resident about what their dream life is, it is remarkable how many of them will say that just having a happy family is good enough (which I doubt is true). I kind of feel, as you said, that dreaming a little in a school paper might be okay, especially if they kind of feel that's what you want them to do. Also, you being a foreigner might give them the feeling they can open up a bit.
By the way, I have a one-on-one student who said that when she was little she wrote a paper about how she wanted to be a librarian when she grew up. The teacher told her that she should rewrite it and say she wants to be a scientist.
I know it's off-topic to your thread, but this kind of thing fascinates me. OK let's be honest, "I find that outrageous" is more like it. Do you know more, about the girl whose teacher said her paper should be rewritten? Did she rewrite it (did she have to, to get a good grade)? This was in primary school? The reason--was it given? Because a librarian isn't a career worthy of a paper? Not worthy of a future ambition? If the reason wasn't spelled out, did the girl understand why (would Chinese kids be expected to get why?), later on if not then? How did she feel about that then? Now? And what does she want to do with her life now?
The girl is now a thirty something woman. She wrote this paper in primary school. From what I gather, the teacher told her directly that she should want to be a scientist because everyone wants to be a scientist. Apparently that was the top respected job back then, and that all the students wrote that they wanted to be a scientist (but I don't know by 'all' if she meant every single one of them or just many of them). She said that later being a businessperson became the ideal. I don't remember if she told me if the teacher gave a reason. I suspect the teacher wouldn't have because that's just the way things go in China with teachers, especially that age. But yes, she did rewrite it. I didn't probe her too much about her feelings, but I can tell she didn't like it and thought it was weird. I particularly like talking to this woman because she likes telling these kind of oddball stories.
xiaophilJuly 22, 2010, 04:02 PM
Earlier I saw another comment here and now it is gone. It's a shame as it was interesting. Perhaps he didn't want to leave it for whatever reason, so I won't beg to have it back. Anyway, this person said that the Chinese on his team are very direct. He said it could be because they are young, in Shanghai and were chosen partially because this particular person likes go-getters.
The crazy thing is that most of my students also are young, and all of them live in Shanghai, and I have asked several times if it is a good idea to tell the boss you want to be a manager. None of them ever say it is a good idea, and most often they are adamant that it is a bad idea.
Now why am I getting a different result? I think one major reason is because I work at a kind of 'budget' training school, so a lot of them (but definitely not all) are (A) lower-level education types, i.e. not the go-getter types, or (B) from outside of Shanghai, and thus they tend to be more conservative.
eupnea63355July 23, 2010, 01:36 AM
xiaophil, you know that I do not have any experience in China, but I will share this: A woman I teach was college educated in China about 45 years ago. Leaving out a lot of detail, the bottom line is that she prefers to stay here in the USA because, in my memory's best attempt at accuracy: "I was very unhappy working in China. I never knew what my boss wanted. You can't ask, and they don't tell you. You have to keep trying things and see how they react. Sometimes if they are unhappy with you, they don't even tell you why. It is very stressful." She has been here about 5 years now.
Thanks for telling. That sounds about right. I have heard Chinese in China say similar things before. I remember one saying that her boss likes to say he is very flexible, but actually, if she doesn't do her tasks in very certain ways, certain ways that he won't tell her because he is 'flexible,' he will be grumpy.
I had a very similar experience in a previous job in Shanghai. My supervisor's responses to my work boiled down to either "OK" or "do it again" (but with no indication of why what I did wasn't what she wanted). I was also the first non-Chinese she'd ever managed, and she didn't take my "what do you want me to do?!?!?!" particularly well. Everyone was pretty frustrated by the situation.
Yes, and in replying to myself, I should have added that I do believe that there is the opposite end of the spectrum in the West, that is *not necessarily better*. I was going to elaborate on that aspect, but it would stray from the original post. Just to keep in mind, though, different cultures, but a common denominator of being human!
holothurianJuly 23, 2010, 04:04 AM
Having managed large Chinese staffs in China off and on for the last 15 years, the trend I have found has been steadily towards directness, with a curve of ever higher expectrations thrown in. These days it seems common for me to interview someone with 3 years relevant experience who is quite insistent they should be managing a department. I try not to laugh, but I'm afraid I can't quite erase all the ridicule from my expression.
I just went out on the floor and looked around, the "cut-off" of this behavior seems to be just over 30 years old. Those above that are much more likely to let their actions and work speak for itself, those below work hard and well, they just seem to like the hard sell and a little verbal exaggeration during review time.
Just an observation...
I can't help but wonder if Chinese treat you differently because you are not Chinese. Perhaps they learned somewhere that foreigners like someone with ambition. It would be ironic if this is the case as you sometimes think their demands are premature enough as to be laughable. At any rate, I am sure that Chinese are becoming more and more direct. Still, I honestly have talked to quite a few Chinese about this, and none of them thought being so direct is a good idea. Could it because the people we are talking to have a significantly different profile, or perhaps it is a statistical anomaly?