Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Temper: Achilles Heel in China

In China, the #1 cardinal mistake is to get excited, lose your temper or even show emotion.  It’s drilled into the Chinese mind, not to do this.

 Impatience, anger, worry; these are some of the biggies that you’re best not to show in public, in front of business partners, colleagues, or even in front of the fabled lady behind the bank window, who I’ve referred in a previous post. 

In the West; we’d agree,…”yeah, yeah, keep calm”.  But we don’t really mean that; at least not the 100% absolute way it’s meant here. 

In China, they show 0% reaction to adverse situations.  In the West, it’s common for people to huff-and-puff if they have to wait too long in line, to be seated, or on a larger scale, lose temper if it’s obvious someone is cheating you.  (now keep in mind, when I say “West”, my background is from the USA, but this largely applies to the West in general).

In China; showing those emotions, will hand you a swift defeat before you even start the battle.

No matter, if someone has blatantly cheated you out of a large sum of money, losing your cool, will cause you to look like the offensive party.  Regardless of if “you’re in the right”; if you’re getting excited, you’re swiftly deemed a weirdo by everyone involved (decision makers, law enforcement, restaurant staff, etc..) and nobody will want to help you.

Embarrassment is something that is quickly caused in China.  It’s like an unseen epidemic that can swiftly come on mass amounts of people at any given time for a multitude of reasons that most Westerners don’t understand. 

Losing your cool or slightly “getting fired up” releases waves of embarrassment to everyone around you.  This is the Chinese Achilles heel, but if you have a temper, it will also be yours.  Their embarrassment will cause them to freeze up, refuse service, “take their ball and go home”.       

Even if it’s an righteous anger, deserved frustration, or you’re nobly perturbed; don’t do it, don’t show it.  The Chinese will laugh (their standard reaction to embarrassment), but I guarantee you, once you hit that brick wall and can get no further, you’ll soon find, there’s nothing funny. 


  1. I agree with this to a certain extent. Sometimes it is ok to show your frustration about an unfair situation if you or a colleague speak the language well and show them that you "get it" vs. other "dumb" foreigners.

    Firmness can work wonders because it indicates control and power which are respected. Nobody respects a pushover.

    Andy in Nanjing

  2. Cheers Andy, thanks for stopping. Great insight; firmness ≠ temper. For the foreigner (as we call the overseas visitor in China) who doesn't speak the language, they've got a thin line to toe in firmness and not losing cool as you mentioned. Perhaps we're talking more public vs. one on one or smaller group situations?

    Almost the better you speak, the firmer you can be but many times it's different than the firmness showed in the West. You'll still rarely see a Chinese show frustration in public and if firmness starts being reached (again in public), that's a sign the situations already escalating.

    You're an old China hand...I don't have to tell you :) Stay warm in Nanjing.