Cultural gap between China and the USA

As the leading nations of the world, China and the USA need to interface frequently in order to discuss problems, and hopefully reach an understanding and finally an agreement.

In any discussion, the individuals from one nation will try reaching out to their counterparts from the other nation. Unfortunately, the framework of mental reference, not to mention the verbal and body languages, can be serious impediments to constructive communication. Therefore, it is important that the interlocutors be aware of these mental and behavioural differences, are able to recognize them and finally adjust to them.

Frustration MountFrustration mounts when we don’t get understood. Source: Reuters

Let us look at this cultural and behavioural gap that exists between nations, and particularly between China and the USA, and more broadly between the East and the West.

Since the 1970’s a series of studies have been conducted that try to characterize the average national cultural features. Three of the most commonly used models are from:

  • Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist from Maastricht University in The Netherlands
  • Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch organizational theorist and management consultant
  • GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research) Project.

All these studies aim to characterize cultural behaviour across nations through a variety of aspects. At the core of each of these studies are a series of key behavioural dimensions that are graded towards two opposite poles. An example would the pairing between individualism and collectivism, where each country would be rated on this individualism-collectivism spectrum.

There are many shortcomings in these models as they do not intend to represent the whole range of human behaviours in a nation. They are only an approximation of key social behaviours. But, at the same time, these measurements can be the beginning in understanding the cultural gap that can exist between two nations.

We will use the model developed over the last 40 years by Geert Hofstede ( to assist in our understanding of national behaviour. The data originates from a study done in the 1970’s of IBM managers located across the world.

Over the years this model was refined and extended to other countries. From the 4 dimensions, it has been expanded to 6 dimensions. The model also allows people to easily compare countries in order to identify potential behavioural challenges. By using the Hofstede model, comparing China with the USA, we obtain this graph.

Comparison of China and the USAComparison of China with the USA as per the Hofstede Cultural Model. Source:

We can clearly see that of the 6 cultural dimensions studied, 3 have major differences. These might cause misunderstanding between individuals who might not be aware of them. Let us look at what each dimension aims to evaluate. All material quoted is from

Power Distance index: “This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.” Russia here achieves a score of 93 making it a highly hierarchical society.

Individualism versus Collectivism: “The high side of this dimension, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we”.” It is to be noted that the USA at 91, has the highest score for the Individualism dimension among the 102 nations studied.

Masculinity versus Femininity: ”The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough versus tender” cultures.” Often, the following analogy is used: in a high masculine society, people tend to “live to work”, while a low masculine society (i.e. feminine) people tend to “work to live”. Japan scores 95, while Sweden scores 5.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): “The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Low UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.” Russia scores high again at 95.

Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation: “Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. In the business context this dimension is related to as “(short term) normative versus (long term) pragmatic” (PRA).”

Indulgence versus Restraint: “Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.” This is where Mexico scores high with a 97.

The Hofstede model allows an easy cultural comparison between any nations. It can be used by corporations who are sending people to work around the world, as well as by governments who need to interface with other nation’s government.

Other individuals have tried to visually represent the differences between the western and eastern approaches. A book was written in 2015 by Yang Liu on that topic: East meets West. Originally from Beijing, the author has studied in Berlin, worked in Singapore, London and New York, and now teaches at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. As a graphic designer, she was able to visualize the differences between the eastern and western worlds.

Problem-solving approachApproach for problem solving in the West and in the East. Source: Yang Liu.

After looking at the overall group behaviour, we can also try to understand what motivates individuals, and this is where the work done by A. Maslow can assist us. A university professor, considered a leading psychologist of the 20th century, studied motivation in western individuals.

He developed a theory called the Hierarchy of Needs. This theory is taught in all business schools. If the same basic principles established by Maslow are used to determine the desires of individuals in an eastern society, we arrive at a different approach in how best to impact people’s behaviour.

Comparison of the Hierarchy of NeedsComparison of the Hierarchy of Needs between the West and Asia. Source: Unknown

The cultural gap between China and the USA is substantial and can be challenging. But, if our goal is to live in harmony, the leaders of the world will need to work together, and that means understanding how the other party naturally tends to behave. This gap must be bridged, and both parties need to work at it.

Bridging the Gap


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