by Toffler



Chinese work style differences and their cultural origin

Although Beijing is reputed to be a chatty city, I find that the Shanghainese like to talk a lot as well.  The Chinese just like to talk…well as least my colleagues do.  The Chinese leader does the talking in interviews, in meetings, and in sales meetings.  I find this very counterintuitive to Western ideas.  In interviews in the West, the general philosophy is to let the interviewee do most of the talking to paint a favorable picture of herself and convey to the interviewer why she is the best candidate.  In interviews in China the candidate still needs to be prepared, however, she needs to be prepared to spend the majority of the time listening.  The Chinese manager will carry the weight in the interview and do the majority of the talking and in doing so, the candidate will have a preview of what all meetings will be like in that Chinese company.

In her new position in that Chinese company, she will learn that Chinese organizations are run from the top-down.  The senior managers will make the decisions; decisions are always made by the top group and then handed down.  That’s why they have so many senior-level managers, because a single one can’t make the decision himself.  It’s group decision making at the top level.  In progressive cities in China, like Shanghai, the managers may call for a meeting of the staff and ask the staff to prepare and present their ideas.  However, the managers will most likely not listen during much of the staff presentation; they will be too busy thinking of their own speech to inform the staff of the decisions that have already been made by the group at the top.  After just one of these meetings, the foreigner will learn to be prepared for that opportunity to present but also to know, it will not matter much because the management will have already made its decision.

Again, in a manner seemingly completely backward to the West, this is also the way sales are done in China.  The customer will come in, choose 1 of 4 or 5 pre-set choices and then the salesperson will spend the next 20-30minutes rattling off the details.  If the customer is lucky, they may be able to ask a couple of questions.  Sales are essentially done by the telling the customer what is available and then letting him choose whether to take it or leave it.  There is no customization. Because of this method of selling, the product must be near perfect to begin with and the salesperson must have their presentation down to a T.  The concepts of ‘listening to the customer’ or seeking out the customer’s needs and then trying to solve those needs with the salespersons array of products just do not yet exist in China.  In China, customers go to salespeople to listen, not the other way around as in the West. But somehow, this method works for Chinese people.  They buy the standard product, no assessment of their needs required.  Especially for the generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution, having even 1 choice is far better than having no choices, so letting someone tell them what they want is fine.  With the Chinese mindset of group decision-making and top-down decisions, its much easier to be told what you want and can have, than risk making your own decision.  Therefore, this sales strategy just works in China.

The Chinese affinity for group decision-making and top-down decisions is rooted in their culture.  China, like Japan and the rest of East Asia, has always been high on the communal scale, and low on the independence side.  This societal trait is further evidenced in schools, particularly in Hong Kong where students must discuss every response before it is presented out loud.  This also explains the prevalence of cheating and group projects.  An individual can be wrong and be blamed; a group can take collective responsibility, which is easier to bear.  Groups make better decisions.  Top-down decision-making is also a formalized characteristic of Chinese society.  Hierarchy, government over individual, boss over subordinate, father over son, older brother over younger brother, man over woman is deeply ingrained in the Chinese philosophy.  This is why all ideas and decisions in China flow from the very top down.

These characteristics, when applied in the hospitality industry can certainly rub foreigners the wrong way.  At a basic level, any question about why something happens is met with the standard response, ‘that’s policy,’ meaning, ‘my boss informed me of the decision however misguided it is and I must follow it.  I don’t think for myself and I can’t make my own decisions; I am just a cog in the wheel that relays information.’  But what about sales?  A foreign potential customer walks into the sales office hoping to thoroughly explain his needs and seek a satisfying outcome.  However, he finds a salesperson talking on and on offering only a multiple-choice test of 5 very limited options.  The salesperson thinks, ‘ah I will tell him what we can give him.  He should be very happy with our 5 choices because in old China there were no choices.’  The customer, on the other hand thinks, ‘what the heck is this stuff? None of this will work for me. Why doesn’t this person care what I want?’  Ahh…the disconnect between Chinese and Western philosophies/attitudes.


  1. Irene |

    on the other hand, imagine this:
    – every customer wants to express his/her own needs and desires,
    – every employee needs to say his/her ideas and plans,
    – every student needs to raise a question or make a comment to the professor,
    – every person needs to weigh and judge 50 different products to choose the best fitting one,
    – every government needs to hear each individual person in its country,
    – every…..

    I totally agree that there is indeed a crack, the size of Grand Canyon, between the thinking of a Westerner, and the mind-set of a Chinese. However, does limited choice not also free up you life? With less choice, you need less trouble thinking about trivial things, like whether you want a hotel room with a view on the swimming pool, the terras, the restaurant or the golf court……..,
    you need less trouble thinking of whether to buy the low-fat candy, the candy with no fat or the sugerless candy……..

    My examples are simple, but my meaning is also simple. I think that you can have too much choice and options that you cannot see the tree through the woods. (*as we put it in the Netherlands). ^_^ People nowadays spend statistically speaking two minutes on making simple decisions, from buying bread to choosing a tv channel. It is only through conditioning that we can save time and effort in making the same decision repetitively. But, hey, does that nog mean that you naturally limit the amount of choices you have to one? You might say that you yourself chose this choice, but to what extent did you. To what extent did you choose the products that are on a shelve, that the employee chose to stock, that what the manager chose to put in the assortiment, that the company chose to include in its products, that the producer chose to manufacture?

    Most of the things are already decided for us, intentionally or unintentionally and subconscious. Choices gives us freedom, but at the same time chains us. icic, how ironic.

    Nevertheless, I must admit, it is always nice to have choices. At least, the fact that I CAN choose, makes my life seem more in the control of my own hands. It is nice to think that I CAN choose something else.
    In the end I think choices should exist, but those choices should be over matters not materialistic, but personal matters: a son able to choose its own career or a daughter able to choose someone she trully loves.

    Let’s make things simple.


  2. Dad |

    You may find this surprising, but there is a great deal of group thinking and decision making in Canada. I have often heard Canadians scoff at American individualism. Europeans also exhibit much less individualism than Americans (i.e., U.S, residents); incredibly, I have heard senior management personnel say that they do not at all mind the high taxes they pay and prefer to have their governments make many of their spending decisions. Individualism, which we cherish, is not currently, in my experience, a globally revered birth right.

  3. midi |

    yes, as a Chinese I am totally agree with Mr. D( well this is the best appellation I can think of). Group thinking happens everywhere.

    Several years ago IBM launched a slogan “service on demand”. for Chinese people in our daily life it’s “strategies on demand”. There is a Chinese idiom “审时度势” , which means you observe, you measure and then you act.

    The guy,for example, shows no requirement from the sales man. But you will be surprised to find such a demanding person he really is when he is decorating HIS OWN house. Here the situation is “who is gonna pay”.

    I guess I am not 100% right. but it might be an other way for you to understand China.


So, what do you think ?