China’s Vice-Premier, Wang Quishan made a rare appearance for a Chinese government official on the Charlie Rose show on Monday, along with US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. It was an hour-long segment, and Mr. Wang made his comments in Mandarin, but of course the US media picked up on one translation of one of his comments, translated as “…the American people, they’re a very simple people.” In US English, “simple” can imply “stupid”, which is why the sensationalist US media probably picked up on it, though there hasn’t been much indication that many Americans have interpreted it as such.
Some CNN Beijing producers were quick to point out that in addition to “simple” 单纯 can be translated as “innocent”, “straightforward”, or “not complicated,” in a good way. While others said that the tone can range from “neutral to patronizing”. The above-linked article from CNN goes on to say that Mr. Wang’s comments are most likely in reference to American “parochialism”… though this interpretation strikes me as a little funny… while there are plenty of cultural and geographic reasons why relatively few Americans (30%) have a passport, your likelihood of traveling abroad if you’re Chinese varies greatly depending on where you live, and is not as high as the United States, ranging from 1% to 20%.
What do Mr. Wang’s comments tell us about Chinese culture, and US culture? If we take CNN Beijing at face-value, and accept that 单纯 refers to “innocent”, “straightforward” “and not-complicated”, to me, these are indicators of 3 main areas of cultural difference between China and the United States:
• “Innocent” – The US has a much shorter history than China, and some of our ideals (Egalitarianism, etc.) can be perceived as a bit utopian, or even naïve by the Chinese. China has a very high Long-Term Orientation score on Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, which is a reflection of both their long history, and their perception of that history. E.g.: “It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization…” – Wang Quishan
• “Straight-Forward” – Chinese people usually place a high value on keeping up appearances, not so much from a “keeping up with the Jones’s” angle, but rather emphasize maintaining “face” and honor in all situations. The Chinese tendency towards Indirect Communication is one of the better examples of this; if you just blurt out whatever you’re “really” thinking (like an American), you might lose face, or worse, you might cause someone else to lose face, and damage the relationships that are the very basis of China’s social fabric (Guanxi).
• “Not Complicated” – Americans tend to be Universalists; that is, they idealize applying the same set of rules and standards to all scenarios. Context isn’t supposed to matter much. This is in direct opposition the Chinese tendency towards Particularism – that is, words, actions, and behaviors must be tailored according to context. The “Golden Rule” is a good example, where Americans (often) expect that others will want to be treated the way that they themselves want to be treated. He may have meant that Americans tend to see the world in “black and white” terms, without the nuance that is more comon among the more high-context Chinese.
If you know specifically what Chinese and Americans value, the ways in which Americans and Chinese (and their governments and corporations) interact becomes a much more of a predictable process than a mystery. You can see here how developing an interculturally competent mindset becomes paramount for working, and doing business across cultures.