We've all seen it or even been part of it. A foreigner engaged in a public meltdown with a local in China. As the volume escalates and the body language gets more aggressive, a crowd begins to gather. This is not because people in China have nothing better to do that rubberneck into other people’s conflicts, but because public expressions of anger are much less common in Chinese culture. Here, I examine the cultural research that attempts to explain why.
Expatriate newcomers to Asia are often told that their hosts tend to curb their emotions more than is normal in the West and that they too should try to avoid public displays of anger. This may be, along with the admonition to pack light, one of the least-followed pieces of advice ever given to expats in China. Chinese people are surely no more immune to feelings of anger than the rest of us, so why do they typically deal with them in such a different way? Cultural experts say there's solid reasoning behind the anomalies.
Psychologists and behavioural scientists have long been interested in the way different cultures perceive and exhibit emotions. As the differences are indisputably stark, the potential for conflict is great. American neuropsychologist Michael Potegal notes that, “Cultural differences in preferred modes of angry expression regulation provide strong implications for misunderstandings in intercultural interactions” in his spiffily-titled book, An International Handbook of Anger.
In China, close-knit family and social relationships— referred to as guanxi—and the teachings of the philosopher Confucius have led to societal pressure to control strong emotions, including anger, especially when in public. “Silence is the true friend that never betrays,” Confucius taught. “When anger rises, think of the consequences.”
The concept of seeing yourself as less important than the whole was also drilled into the Chinese psyche during the Cultural Revolution, when individualism was vilified in favour of selfless devotion to the communist cause. If you are brought up to believe your personal network and the country’s overall image is more important than the individual, preserving “face” might take precedence over the annoyance you feel when you get shortchanged at the grocery market or cut up in traffic.
As anyone who’s been in China for longer than a couple of weeks knows, however, anger sometimes finds its way to the surface. It’s clear, therefore, that Chinese people feel anger just as keenly as anyone else. The reason they hide it is simply cultural.
“If I see my primary identification as a group member, then considerations about face involve my group,” writes professional mediator Michelle LeBaron in her essay on cross-cultural communication. “Direct confrontation or problem-solving with others may reflect poorly on my group, or disturb overall community harmony. I may prefer to avoid criticism of others, even when the disappointment I have concealed may come out in other, more damaging ways later. Since no direct confrontation takes place, face is preserved and potential damage to the relationships or networks of relationships is minimized.”
Psychologists and anthropologists theorise that foreigners from cultures that focus on the individual often feel that they can, and should, display their emotions more freely. Cultural transition coach Heather Markel, who has written about anger responses in different cultures, says that in the US, “The louder you yell, and the higher you escalate, the more likely it is that you will get what you want.” Westerners, therefore, are often hardwired to make a fuss when they feel aggrieved.
Expats in China often lose their cool when faced with things that have been ingrained as “wrong” since childhood. Spitting, littering, queue-jumping and fibbing are all commonly cited by expats as triggers of annoyance. This is simply culture shock in essence, but stressors can amplify feelings from mere bewilderment to the other end of the spectrum — pure rage.
Unfortunately, getting angry in these situations is about as productive as banging your head against the Great Wall. “Expressing anger may be perceived as relatively appropriate in Western cultures, but as relatively inappropriate in East Asian cultures,” Hajo Adams, Aiwa Shirako and William W. Maddux wrote in their paper on the effects of anger in cross-cultural business negotiations.
In either culture, however, there’s really no evidence that getting angry helps achieve an end goal. Experiments with both European-American and Asian participants have found that European-Americans were likely to back down in the face of anger when negotiating, while Asians, if they budged in angry bargaining at all, would make a smaller concessions.
When in an Asian culture, Markel suggests it may be best to grin and bear it. Losing your cool will not automatically get you what you want, and may instead harm your chances of success. This is easier said than done, however. “It’s pretty tough to tuck away years of cultural habits, even if you have to in order to get what you want,” she writes.
If you think it’s hard learning to control your emotions as an expat in China, bear in mind that Chinese immigrants are navigating the polar-opposite landscape in the West. Writing about how Asian American teens deal with anger, DeAnna McKinnie Burney points out that depression tends to spike among Asian adolescents in America who feel pressured to do well in school but have no viable outlet for their frustrations. Despite living in a culture where emotions are more freely expressed, within their own communities, “value continues to be placed on emotional calmness, especially control over negative emotions, such as anger, jealousy, hostility, aggression and self-pity.”
But China itself is changing. While the Asian emotional blueprint is heavily influenced by Confucian teachings, when the master was writing his sage advice 2000 years ago, he did not take into account “996” jobs, the pressures of being an only child, the gaokao exam or social media. Nowadays, Chinese people, both young and old, have to deal with a lot more stress, which is much more likely to manifest as anger.
In a bid to ameliorate student depression — which in extreme cases ends with the students harming themselves — some Chinese schools have introduced “venting rooms” where the students can take turns punching dummies or crying to get rid of feelings of frustration before they manifest in other ways. With the advent of social media, the Chinese public in general also has an outlet to voice their frustrations about everything from local government policies to national tragedies. Whether the threat of landing yourself in trouble by criticising the government online adds to overall stress, however, is another question entirely.
For the foreigner struggling through a Bad China Day, the knowledge that anger is expressed differently in different cultures is not always enough to tame the tiger within. Everyone, whatever their culture, gets angry from time to time, so don’t beat yourself up if you just couldn’t hold it in. What matters is that you deal with your anger in a healthy way most of the time. That might mean working it out in the gym, venting to your friends and family, or occasionally biting someone’s head off when they truly deserve it. Just be aware that public displays of anger typically won’t win the fight in China and adjust your responses accordingly whenever possible.
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Keywords: anger management in China Expats in China
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I'd love to for the author to extend this masterclass invitation out to the people in my luxury complex community that get into fights with each other over their kids misbehaving (playing in the water fountain, pissing on the sidewalk, etc.), and OP, this is just your lucky day, as I just so happen to be an expert at providing people tips on how to not take a dump on the sidewalk, how not to hork, and how to not stand in doorways, as well as how to not blow audible farts in elevators. I will provide this class for free at your local "get to know a laowai" community centre. I always have been told by the students that foreigners have a much better temper than the local population, which surprised me because I thought it was always the other way around, until I actually lived here for many years, and here we are.. reading this article written by a mentally handicapped local or a foreigner that grew up with a silver spoon up their arse trying to spout out some more liberal non-sense (cultural relativism in this case). Chinese people have a short fuse, just ride a didi or get out of your complex and you'll see people yelling at each other all the time. Though, I do agree, they don't resort to violence, but when it does happen, god help us all as you'll see in your wechat moments someone getting butchered with a meat clever or whatever else.
Dec 16, 2020 14:16 Report Abuse
actually Chinese people, when they resort to violence, tend to stack the odds in their favour - rarely an even fight. Man beats on woman, adult beats on child, Chinese guy calls his friends for back-up rather than engage in a 1-on-1 fight with a foreigner. And this again, is something that i observed on more than 1 occasion.
Dec 16, 2020 19:42 Report Abuse
I found myself laughing uncontrollably as I was reading your comment, Guest15884516. Aside from the gruff language, you're absolutely right. I have no idea where expats get the idea that Chinese people are somehow more mild-mannered than foreigners. And the concept of seeing yourself as less important? The author has clearly never spent a minute on the road in this country.
Dec 16, 2020 21:11 Report Abuse
All I can say is China will bring out the worst in you if you let it, as a black man in this country American or not every day is a struggle. From ugly looks to prejudiced job advertisements or people just calling you a foreigner every 60 minutes. It's tough, yes other races and genders of foreign origin may have it tough. Living here truly teaches you how to put up with a lot of microaggression and disrespect. This column is a way to display tolerance and exercise cultural relativism so I get it.
Dec 16, 2020 03:45 Report Abuse
Rubbish. I have observed that the Chinese person is more likely to lose their temper and shout than the foreigner. More often than not the foreign worker will just keep (calmly) making the same point over and over, because the Chinese person (more often than not) does not LISTEN. My own Chinese senior manager tried to use shouting and anger in an attempt to bully and intimidate me, as well as being insulting to me in a both personal and professional level. I think it pissed him off that I did not rise to the bait EVER and kept my cool. I have seen Chinese people resort to anger VERY quickly, as many (and this site can be used as an example) take a short cut to getting abusive without reading or listening to all a foreigner has to say (or write). Foreigners tend to get angry under extreme and persistent baiting, and it is deliberate BAITING on the Chinese part. This article is laughable in that like so many others on this site, it attempts to paint foreign workers as (again) the problem and always being at fault. Nice try though !
Dec 15, 2020 14:52 Report Abuse