It is always interesting to study other cultures, and it is extremely important to do just that if you are going to have interactions with them. You don’t want to insult someone or embarrass yourself and your own culture. China is one of those interesting cultures mainly because what we usually know about the country is through movies or the local Chinese restaurant. What I’ve learned over the years is that that knowledge is usually useless. A sincere study of a culture is the only way to truly appreciate the differences.
So, being an American what do I see as the 13 biggest cultural differences between the two countries? It took a long time to narrow it all down since we could get so detailed that an encyclopedia would be the end result. So, I have focused on 13 major cultural differences between China and the United States.
These differences do not make either culture better or worse than the other one. It just shows their differences which has been created through centuries of history and development. China can trace its traditions and customs for thousands of years. America is still a small baby of a nation that has had very few traditions of its own but has become such a melting pot of cultures that there is almost no specific American culture that can be applied across the board. This makes both cultures unique and worthy of study and respect.
13 Cultural Differences Between America and China
- Social Structure
- Business Relations
- Recognition of the Dead
- Time Sensitivity
- Lack of Person Space
- Respect for Elders
1. Social Structure
In China, the social structure is formal and hierarchical. You know where you fit in the structure, and you abide by the rules there. There is no crossing into other areas. In America, it is much looser and informal. It is not uncommon to see those of various social levels socializing and knowing each other. There are very few lines that socially are not allowed to be crossed. This can cause problems in business relationships if the visiting culture is unaware of it.
Specifically, this type of cultural practice is reinforced in China due to their political structure. China is a communist country, so the government exerts extreme control over the population, censoring media and conducting personal surveillance. With such power invested in the government, regular people are not allowed to speak or act out against the regime, as doing so results in severe punishment.
What Is Individualism?
Individualism is a cultural value that emphasizes an individual having control over their own ambitions over those of the group that they belong to.
3. Self: Individualism vs Collectivism
The Chinese look more at the group collective than at individualism. America has become known for its push of individualism which has been a source of conflict with other cultures that look collectively. A person from China is more prone to look at how their acts affect the whole instead of how it affects them personally. They are more willing to give up and sacrifice for the greater good. America’s individualism has been its backbone and the reason for its success as a world power, but when visiting China, it needs to be reined in.
For the Chinese, each person fits into the greater body of the nation, so individual accomplishments are downplayed. This is in stark contrast to the American ideal of individualism, where the self is the most important thing, and individual accomplishments are praised.
What Is Collectivism?
Collectivism is a cultural value that is characterized by an emphasis on cohesiveness among individuals and prioritization of the group over self.
The reputation of the individual is very important in China. If an action will humiliate someone or ruin a reputation, it is avoided. When shame occurs, the person sacrifices their job or whatever it is that will heal the shame. In America, reputations come and go overnight and in the end usually does not matter, the end result is more of the focus. A person is more likely to overlook a reputation to get the job done.
China has begun to implement a “social credit system” wherein each individual is assigned a social credit score based on their actions. Negative actions that damage one’s reputation such as smoking in a non-smoking area, buying too many video games, and getting speeding tickets, will negatively impact a person’s social credit.
In China, the vast amount of the population are ethnically Han Chinese, and they can trace their lineage back to ancient China. Due to a more homogenous ethnic makeup, there is more of a collectivist society in the country at large. Thus, China is less focused on respecting and accepting cultural diversity.
In the United States, there has always been a mix of different ethnicities and culture, forming a unique mix that helps to embody American individualism. America has long been known as a melting pot for different cultures as it is one of the most diverse countries on the planet. This is something embraced by most Americans, but it is not something the Chinese are accustomed to.
12. Lack of Personal Space
With China being so densely populated, most Chinese are used to cramped living spaces and crammed transportation. The concept of personal space is not the same as in the U.S. as the Chinese do not find it offensive to be physically close to someone.
Chinese cities, in particular, are some of the most densely populated places on the planet. China has six cities that contain over 10 million inhabitants, meaning that the Chinese are used to being in massive crowds at all times.
In the U.S. people tend to take their personal space seriously, and they do not enjoy being too physically close to another person.
13. Respect for Elders
Going back to the ancient days of Confucius, the Chinese have practiced reverence and respect for both ancestors and elders. In Chinese culture, the older someone is the wiser and more respected they are. Their accumulated wisdom is a great source of inspiration for the younger generations.
Chinese families are expected to take care of their elders, and it is looked down upon the family if they send their elderly to a retirement home or a similar situation. The elderly are looked to as a source of inspiration and reverence, and the traditional Chinese family unit contains the parents, children, and grandchildren in it.
This is in sharp contrast to the American model where children are supposed to be completely separate from their parents after they are legal adults.
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Bryant, S. (2018, October 19). 10 cultural differences between the Chinese and Americans. Country Navigator. Retrieved on March 20th, 2019.
Zanini-Graca, P. (2018, June 15). The U.S.-China Relationship: A Clash of Cultures. Journal of Diplomacy.Retrieved on March 20th, 2019.
6 cultural differences between China and the US. China Daily. Retrieved on March 20th, 2019.
Originally published at https://owlcation.com on June 5, 2020.