5 Ways to Keep from Losing Your Mind in China

"What the...?"

China is a very exciting country to be in for many reasons. For most foreigners here, you’ve come for business or travel. But with so many possible activities to do, there remains one thing you can’t avoid: communication. Communication in modern China is probably not much different than how it was a hundred years ago, before simplified Chinese came around. Contrary to one assumption, communication hasn’t gotten any simpler. In fact, if you aren’t prepared, it can be very easy to lose your mind. That’s where the group of foreigners in China gets separated… and the ones who can’t handle it end up going home “for good”. Here is what that group should have taken into consideration.

1) Laugh your problems away: This is one of the toughest things to get used to. It’s the awkward giggle/chuckle you hear when a something goes wrong. Perhaps you gave a direct comment that surprised your secretary. Maybe a friend didn’t help you do a task correctly. Anything that takes effort could potentially be done wrong, and a laugh is a way to combat losing face. In order to combat frustration, I usually make a game out of guessing what will go wrong. When a mistake is made, or a misunderstanding occurs, I compare it with my original guess. It is a little pessimistic, but it often helps me laugh the problems away.

2) Guess what the meaning is: Excuses for not being able to attend this meeting or going on that date are easy to spot. People around the world make excuses and this is not isolated to one part of the world in particular; however, giving direct answers to questions in China rarely occurs. “Have you eaten dinner yet?” would be answered with the following: “Well, are you hungry?” The assumption is that you are asking about dinner because YOU are hungry, not because the friend might be.

When I recently tried to pay the bill for a superior’s lunch, the restaurant owner said: “He’s your leader, you don’t have to pay for him.” After I insisted, and paid the money, the owner came back to me and said, “He actually already paid for it while you were in the bathroom.” Of course, this is not true. The owner was looking for a way to make me take the money back, while saving both of our faces. This dishonesty is often considered a “lie” in the West, but it is a very common way to communicate here.

Avoiding embarrassing moments allows people to do a lot of things out here. We might consider these actions spineless, but they are just happy no one has lost face. Harmony is then restored, which is supposedly good for society as a whole.

3) Respect and Expect Respect from others. Remember your age. Know your position. And anticipate when you can get away with things by being a “foreigner.” These are all very important things to consider in somewhat military-bound societies. Countries like Korea and Japan also have hierarchical cultures that give elders the most respected position. If you have a commanding position, you will make decisions when necessary. When you are the subordinate, you should follow directions with little grumbling. Unfortunately, if you are told to do something that ends in failure, you will be blamed for it. Subordinates help cushion a superiors face when things go wrong. You can also do this when little things go wrong under your command.

4) Wait until the last minute. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it is a common behavioral trait out here. Friends and colleagues will always wait until there is only about 1 hour or less to get something done. Since “anything could change at any minute” there is really no long-term planning for things done below the municipal level or across a major corporation. Restocking, making phone calls, arranging meetings, taking flights, etc. These events are all done just before they happen and no more than 1 or 2 days in advance. Expect things to be done last minute and don’t ask WHY when they do it that way. Asking someone to explain why something is done poorly, or last-minute, will only hurt your relationship.

5) Don’t take “Yes” for an answer. One of the most important things to remember is that “Yes” is used as frivolously as a head nod. You know when someone is talking and you just nod your head to show you are listening? That happens around Asia, but verbally. They say “Yes” to show you they are listening or just to say “I hear you.” Also, as their superior, people can’t say “No” to you. They will always agree to do it, but if they really don’t want to, they will find a way to reject or ignore the task later. So, expect flakiness and set your deadlines a little earlier. That way, when someone bails out on you, the task can still get done on time.

The above are just a few ways to keep from losing your mind in China. If you have some experiences yourself, please let us know below!

And, of course, Good luck!

  • Jenny Hones

    Hi Ben,
    This is so true!  I’d say 1,2 & 4 also apply to Japan.   I have found that learning a language is one thing while learning a culture is completely different.

    • Anonymous

      I would expect some similarities in Japan. A lot of cultural and lingual foundations in Japan are sourced from ancient China. It makes communication a real pain in the ass, but sometimes can be quite helpful. It takes patience to learn both the language and the communication style.
      Culture is intertwined in all languages. A google translation will never be close to the real thing, unfortunately. But given enough time, the culture will become clearer for you. 🙂