This week, I met a friend at Starbucks to catch up and spend some time together. I love Starbucks. It's the same everywhere! Anyways, halfway through our conversation we were interrupted by an interesting cultural encounter. After living in China for over a year, I have become somewhat accustomed to some cultural differences (not all, but some I don't really notice anymore), however, this one instance really pointed out some of the major cultural differences between the West (especially the US) and China.
A middle aged man came up to our table and interrupted us to ask if my friend (who is Chinese) could translate for him. As I glanced over my shoulder at his table, it appeared he was sitting with his son, wife and a young woman who appeared to be European or American. My friend agreed to help and I waited for a few minutes while she went over to help explain a few things. When she returned, she told me that the man and his wife were hiring the American to tutor their son in English. As a thank you, they wanted to take her out to dinner but she refused the offer saying that receiving payment for her services as a tutor was enough of a thank you. I suggested that my friend advise the American to take them up on their offer, but before my friend could return to their table, they all got up and left.
The American walked briskly to the door to leave, but then noticed that the Chinese man had approached our table and was talking to my friend again. He was asking my friend if she would like to tutor his son (so obviously it didn't work out with the American). The American quickly approached me (I thought she was upset he was asking my friend to tutor his son), this is the conversation that followed.
American Woman: "Is he asking her out too?"
Me: "I'm sorry, what? No, he's asking her to tutor his son."
AW: "Oh, good. He was totally hitting on me! He kept saying I was beautiful and then asked me out to dinner!"
Me: "Treating someone to dinner as a thank you is very customary in China, I don't think he was hitting on you."
AW: "Well, he wanted me to go to dinner with just him! He just wanted a date out of it."
Me: "Uh...are you sure? My friend told me the whole family was to take you out to dinner."
AW: "Oh...That wasn't what was communicated."
After the gentleman left, my friend cleared up the encounter with the American. The family was indeed all going to dinner, and paying a compliment by saying "you are beautiful" is considered a nice gesture in China. We talked with her for awhile, and then she thanked us and left. My friend and I had a good laugh after that.
In summary, here are some the major cultural differences I noticed that presented themselves in the situation:
1) Appropriate compliments. In China, a married man telling a young, unmarried woman that she is beautiful is not inappropriate. In America? Yes, it would be. But in China it is an attempt to be nice and make the other person feel good. It is also appropriate for women to tell men they are handsome, even if their wife is sitting right next to them. I don't think about this cultural difference very much, but it's a big one. Especially seeing how offended the American was.
2) Building relationships. The family was hiring the American to tutor their son. It is customary for someone to treat another to a meal as a thank you and even a precursor to doing business together. In China, relationships are very important. The tutor being hired saw this as a business deal, no personal relationship needed. To Chinese, even in business you build the personal relationship. Many large business contracts are agreed upon over dinner and after some drinking. In America, the appropriateness of dining together for business varies on the situation, but is mostly done after the business transaction. In China, it is done mostly before the business transaction. Big difference. The family felt that treating the American to dinner was the proper response to her agreement to tutor their son, she obviously disagreed.
3) Giving face. I don't really understand the concept of “face” very well, but I think it applies here. "Face" is a concept we don't have in America, however it is a social norm in China. By the family inviting the tutor to dinner, they were "giving face" to her by demonstrating they thought she was important enough to treat to a meal. Her refusal actually caused them to "lose face". By refusing their offer, she was saying she didn't think them worthy enough to treat her (or something like that). Face is very important in China, and though foreigners can get away with a lot in this area, it is still good to note this is a major cultural difference. Americans especially don’t consider this in most social situations, we think if you have a proper excuse, turning someone down is ok (and even polite). To a Chinese, any refusal can be interpreted as a loss of “face”, no matter the excuse.
This encounter reminded me again of how different a culture I live in. I'm assuming that the American tutor was a newbie to China by her reactions, however, I'm no veteran. It was a good reminder to me that I still need to be a learner of the culture and ask for clarification before jumping to conclusions when encountering strange circumstances.
Have you encountered any "cultural differences" before? How did you handle them?