Two concepts that foreigners are always told about are “Face” and “Guanxi”.
“Face” is usually explained as not embarrassing people. It seems that every business book about China makes a point of explaining that you cannot point out workers mistakes, because it will cause them to “lose face,” which would be a great embarrassment. “Losing face” can be getting angry in public, making a mistake, or just not knowing an answer.
This is a good start for understanding face but really the concept runs so much deeper than that, and causes problems for expats who have lived in China for years. From my experience it’s not actually making a mistake that causes the loss of face, it’s someone discovering that you made a mistake. So often there will be storm clouds looming, and your co-workers will say that everything is just fine to avoid the loss of face.
There’s not much you can do in these situations, because even if you point out the problem, it will be denied. I hate to say it but often all you can do is brace yourself.
The other part of face that foreigners often misunderstand is that “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. So when you ask a co-worker a question, they will always give you an answer, regardless of whether or not they know what they are taking about. This was especially frustrating recently when my friend was told that his employer knew how to get him a visa. It turned out that they had no idea what to do and he ended up having to leave China after a few short months.
The trick here is to ask “or” questions. Instead of saying “when do you think my apartment will be ready?” it’s better to say “Is my apartment ready now? Or would it be a good time to take a short trip?” These questions give them a way out so they can save face.
Check back tomorrow for the explanation of “Guanxi” and how to work around it.