The Bit About Give and Take

When accustomed to living and giving one way, it’s tough to change to another. This month, accept a new way of enriching your Chinese relationships.

0815_Culture TellerNot that long ago, I married a wonderful Chinese woman. At our wedding party, her parents dutifully accepted each gift—mostly cash—carefully noting the giver and how much had been given. This was done for two reasons. First, her parents had attended weddings of their friends’ families, had given money, and wanted to assure that money given now was equal to or greater than money given previously; and second, if they had to give money in the future, they’d be sure not to give less than what had been given to us.

This was extremely important. If someone gave less, it could seriously damage their relationship, as that person would be seen as dishonest, or as undervaluing and disrespecting that relationship. If someone gave more, it created an obligation, putting my wife’s parents in debt, obligating them to do something in return to restore that balance.

This sense of debt and obligation went to such a ludicrous extreme that when her parents’ friends invited us to a private dinner, and I asked for bottled water for my Canadian family who had joined us, my wife became very angry. Why? Because even that simple request—a reasonable one in my eyes—created greater debt and obligation for her parents, as the hosts had to go outside and buy the water for us.

This issue is probably one of the most significant factors in damaging or destroying relationships between Chinese and expats. In Western culture, it is quite common to do things ‘just to be nice,’ with no expectation of recompense or reciprocation. Gifts are given simply to express friendship, or a particular milestone, not as a point of comparison to see how much we owe each other.

This issue is probably one of the most significant factors in damaging or destroying relationships between Chinese and expats.

Even when we understand it, it can seem rather ‘cold’ to those from Western cultures. The idea that every gift you give creates obligation; that the value of our relationship is determined by how you pay back the other.

Yet this is the reality of Chinese culture. No, not every Chinese is like this, and certainly it is changing in the younger generation, but it is still a fact that permeates relationships in China—family, close friends, casual acquaintances and business relationships. For example, the idea that Chinese children take care of their parents old age not because they love them, but because they are obligated to repay their parents for raising them as children. (And to clarify, I’m not saying that Chinese children don’t love their parents; but regardless of love, they are obligated to repay the debt).

But more importantly, look at this from the other side. A more significant irony is that while Westerners often describe Chinese as cold and selfish because of this practice, many Chinese likewise consider Westerners to be the same. Why? From their perspective, they fail to show any real gratitude or appreciation.

“I treated them to an expensive dinner to show my appreciation, and then when they invited me out, they made me pay for myself.”

Because Chinese are born and raised in this culture, most of them have developed a natural, unconscious ability to track the give and take, and tailor their actions accordingly. They know not only that they need to take this person to dinner, but that they should not take them to a very expensive restaurant (because that would create too much of an obligation on the other person, who makes less money). But most expats lack that internal calculator, so it’s important to be very consciously aware of this.

In China, your sincerity and commitment to a relationship is, to a great degree, calculated according to your ability to maintain an equal balance of debt. They do for you, you do for them, in an ongoing cycle. Your ‘face,’ to a very great degree, is determined by an ability and willingness to maintain that balance.

This is, for a great many expats, one of the most difficult aspects of building and maintaining relationships in China, not least because it can be perceived, from one perspective, as manipulative and calculating. But this isn’t Western culture, it is Chinese culture; and if you want to build and maintain relationships here, it is important to adjust to appreciate that acting in this manner actually demonstrates sincerity and commitment to a relationship.

0415_culture teller2John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15 years, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.

For solutions to confusions, send questions and observations to cultureteller@test.heredg.com.