Sunday, April 06, 2014

New Chinese Wisdom, Part 2: On Chinese Deference

A jazz jam session at Jianghua Bar, Beijing.
[This is the second article in a four-part series on Chinese culture, business, and education from a visiting Westerner’s perspective.]

Listening to a live jazz jam session in Jianghua, a hip bar in a Beijing hutong, brought me right back to my favorite clubs in New York City's Greenwich Village, including Smalls, 55 Bar, Arthur's Tavern, Fat Cat, Garage Restaurant, Cornelia Street Cafe, and Zinc Bar. These guys were on fire. Their swinging renditions of I'll Remember April, That's All, and The Way You Look Tonight were powerful reminders of the universal appeal and driving force of jazz as an American art form. These young Chinese musicians, deep in talent and rich in improvisational skills, brought an interpretation to the musical idiom that was second to none. Their passion for jazz and deference to its legendary composers and performers highlighted for me the respect that the Chinese have for global culture in general, Western in particular.

The deferential nature of a people who total 20 percent of the world's 7 billion inhabitants is humbling. I see it in the way Chinese people communicate with me. Staff members and students from the National School of Development at Peking University invariably open their emails by writing "Dear Professor," and even the less formal ones begin with "Dear Phil." In speaking with them, I often hear the expression "it's my honor to help you ... to learn from you ... to accompany you." In contrast, most Americans tell me that writing dear in an email is far too intimate or formal given the fast-paced, get-to-the-point business environment we live in today. As for it's my honor, I'd bet that Westerners would say the expression is antiquated at best or sarcastic at worst.

Not so with the Chinese. They mean these words when they say them. The respect they show to their elders or accomplished counterparts and the value they place on their time with them reveal how greatly they prize education and wisdom. Yet they will be the first to say that they can learn a lot from the American style of communication. In fact, they admire American confidence and assertiveness.

I raise these points not to show favor to one communication style or the other, but simply to suggest that each culture can learn so much from the other for the betterment of both.