The extent to which the Middle Kingdom is a collectivist or an individualist culture is not as straightforward as it seems. And, as ever, things are constantly changing.
Fame can be a terrible bore, and so it was at the HERE! Dongguan 10th Anniversary Party, where people constantly approached me saying, “Hey, you’re the Culture Teller guy.” And so I was inundated with question after question, but one in particular stuck with me.
An American businessman who has been here for years, asked, “China is a collectivist culture, but my Chinese staff act as individualists, only caring about themselves. Why?” A few other expats stood around, puzzled, nodding in pensive agreement.
And it’s an excellent question; trying to unbundle the inherent contradictions within Chinese culture is complicated. We hear the line about China having a collectivist culture all the time, yet people often seem highly individualist. To some degree, this is true; as China is changing, so is its culture. Consider that just two generations ago, most Chinese children grew up in large families where they had to learn to share and cooperate with others; today, most grow up as single children, receiving all the attention. It is bound to change things, and so it has.
However, there’s another aspect to this that is not quite so obvious. When we are talking about a collectivist culture, this does not just mean working together within a group, but it is also how people construct their sense of identity and value. In an individualist culture, one’s identity is largely derived from what has been personally accomplished. But in a collectivist culture, identity is often based on what groups you belong to: what kind of family you come from, if you are rich or poor, whether you are a Communist Party member, etc.
Chinese people tend to respond much better to being rewarded and punished as a group, rather than as individuals.
As a simple example, consider a 28-year old man from a poor family with limited education. But at the same time, he is intelligent, hard-working, put himself through university, and is now a successful businessman. He finds a woman that he falls in love with, and asks her to marry him. How will her family perceive this man?
In an individualist culture, his family background will be less relevant, and may even work in his favor, as it will better showcase just how much he has accomplished, and her family will likely admire what he has achieved. But in a collectivist culture, his family background will carry greater significance, particularly if the woman has a higher social status; her family will be more likely to disapprove of the marriage due to his family background, regardless of his personal ability.
This also has a significant impact in business. Chinese people frequently prefer working with people who belong to the same ‘group’ as they do–this could be people who went to the same university, or are from the same hometown, or any number of other possible associations. When faced with two different business choices, they will tend to base their decision not simply on what best for business, but rather on the relationships they have with people involved.
Even when you have Chinese staff that seem to be acting as individualists, they will still have collective tendencies. Chinese people tend to respond much better to being rewarded and punished as a group, rather than as individuals. Praising an individual can lead to others on their team resenting them, and refusing to help them further, whereas praising the group, even if only one person has excelled, will often inspire a greater group effort. Likewise, criticizing an individual may lead to everyone on the team being afraid to act, for fear of being singled out; but criticizing the team will result in members of the team cracking down on those who caused the problem, and increasing overall productivity.
This mixing of both individualist and collectivist tendencies can cause confusion, even for Chinese people themselves. China is a country in the midst of very rapid and significant change, and it’s not surprising that the culture is changing too. All this is not to say that Chinese culture is no longer collectivist; there are still a great many ways in which collectivist thinking has a significant impact both on professional and interpersonal relationships. For the Chinese being part of a group has a certain set of connotations and responsibilities, and it is something worth thinking on.
Honestly, after more than 22 years, I’m still learning. And as you mention, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes over the years. But I can share one of my favorite memories, the first time that I felt I was at least starting to understand and adapt to Chinese culture successfully.
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