Uncanny similarities

in culture and behaviour

Updated 31 August 2011

Although it is dangerous to generalise about 2.5 billion people (in fact more when one includes Chinese and Indians living out of their homelands), but from personal experience, experiences of friends and colleagues, and published material, I can say with some confidence that there are spooky similarities between Chinese and Indians.

 Chinese and Indians in common:

  • Are hierarchical and deferential.
  • They do not like to go against people higher up the hierarchy, even if they know the ‘superior’ is wrong and is about to make a regrettable decision – something many western clients in IT projects outsourced to Indian (or Chinese) teams learn to their cost.
  • They also don’t like to say: “No.”
  • When they nod (especially the Chinese) as you are saying something, such as at an important presentation, don’t assume they are agreeing with you. They are probably just indicating that they had heard and think they’ve understood what you’ve said, but not necessarily agree with that!
  • They don’t like to ask questions, especially in meetings. Asking questions may imply they didn’t understand you. That in turn implies that either you weren’t clear or that they are not clever enough to get it.
  • They also tend to be very literal when answering questions. No attempt is made to try to understand the ‘real question’ even if it is often quite obvious.
  • They tend to follow conventions and traditions.
  • Finally, esp the Chinese, they tend to be collective; taking a ‘safety in numbers’ or ‘not wishing to be the odd-man-out’ approach to any issue. The more controversial the more collective the stance.

To illustrate, I recount a personal experience many years ago (but my Indian and Chinese friends tell me things have not changed that much).

I was living at a university town that happened to be a stop for the Calcutta-Delhi Express. I was travelling to Delhi and got to the station slightly early. So I asked the clerk: “When is the next scheduled train to Delhi?” To which he replied: “The next scheduled train is in 10 minutes.”

After about 20 minutes and with no sign of the Delhi Express, I went to the counter and said: “I thought you told me the next scheduled train to Delhi was in 10 minutes, 20 minutes ago. What’s happening?” His reply was: “That is correct. But the scheduled train had been cancelled last night. So the next unscheduled train to arrive here for Delhi will not be for another three hours.”

He wasn’t being awkward or intentionally misleading. I hadn’t asked the right question and he was not trained or motivated to answer the question I should have asked. After all, he wasn’t paid to second guess what a customer wants to ask! 

Incidentally, as of the end of March 2010, passengers will no longer be allowed to travel on the roofs on most Indian railways. By the way, India has the world’s largest railway with 1.4 million employees (said to be the largest civilian employer in the world; and probably second largest only to the Chinese Army).


Lest you think the Indian railway clerk’s responses in the anecdote in the left panel were due to his lowly status or lack of understanding of English, or that the Chinese are very different, let me tell you another story.
A friend of mine, a British expat, was the Asia-Pacific CIO of a major multinational based in Hong Kong. He supervised local IT
managers across the region. They were all reasonably well paid and fluent in English. A major system upgrade was being installed in Taiwan. It was a critical system and a date was agreed for it to go live, a Monday. He was in constant touch by email and phone with his Taiwanese colleague and things were going very well. On the eve of the go-live Monday, he telephoned his colleague and asked:
“Have you finished all the tests and is the system all OK?” To which the reply was: “Sure, the tests are all done and the system is OK.”
To my friend’s utter surprise and shock, the Taiwanese factory manager rang him on Monday at the crack of dawn to complain that things were mayhem as the new system was not working and the old one had been shut off.  He immediately contacted his Taiwanese IT manager and asked for an explanation.  The reply was: “There has been a major power cut that caused major problems and hence we couldn’t cut over.” And when asked how long that had gone on, expecting a reply like: since early this morning, the answer was: since Sunday afternoon!
Once again, the ‘superior’ didn’t ask the right question and the ‘subordinate’ was not going to second-guess!


The contrast between western norms and local ones are less so in cities, especially in China. For example, arranged marriages using professional matchmakers are common in India and in Chinese rural communities and with some city folk. Girl babies are still regarded as not necessarily a happy occasion, again more in villages than in cities. Both follow traditional festivals. In China, most of these are secular, such as the Chinese New Year and the mid-Autumn moon cake festivals. In India, most are religious, Holi colour water festival to welcome spring, the Pujas (when a major deity is venerated and at the end of the period is immersed in the Ganges to send the prayers to heaven) held after the monsoon, and Diwali, the New Year. In addition, major Muslim holy days are public holidays such as Muharram and Id ul-Fitr; as are Easter and Christmas. It is thought that India has the most holidays of any country.

·         Are strongly family- and clan-oriented. This works its way through nepotism in both private and public affairs, often to the detriment of the common good.

·         Work best through connections/relationships (quan xi in Chinese). It’s an extreme case of the British ‘old boys’ network’ – it’s about “who you know and not what you know or what you are good at”.

·         Are colour prejudiced. Light-skinned girls find it easier to attract husbands and if a dowry is involved, her parents pay less.  L’Oreal (“you’re worth it”) has research centres in China and India developing extreme white face powder. This, apparently, is also sought after in many other South East Asian countries as well as Japan.

·         Have high levels of corruption. According to Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, China ranks 80th and India 94th (Somalia at 174 is the worst). Incidentally, the country perceived to be least corrupt is Denmark, with the Nordic countries, Singapore, Switzerland, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Luxembourg occupying the other top 12 slots. The UK is number 17 and the US is 19.

However, the more westernised a Chinese or Indian is, the less he exhibits these archetypical behaviours. Someone born in the West and can hardly speak his parents’ language is not culturally a Chinese or Indian.


I go to Hong Kong periodically. My friends there who have known me for a long while eventually told me that I was a ‘banana’. When I looked nonplussed, they explained that I was “yellow on the outside, but white inside”. Later, when Irecounted this to a much westernised Indian friend, he started laughing. When he finally stopped, he said: “Wow, we are more alike than I thought. When I last visited Calcutta my relatives who had never left India told me I was a ‘coconut’: brown on the outside, but white inside!

Please note that both terms ‘banana’ and ‘coconut’ are essentially derogatory.


Finally, you need to know about Chinese ‘face‘, which also applies to much of the rest of South East Asia. Some westerners equate this to respect or reputation or honour. ‘Losing face’ is sort of like losing honour or even humiliation. But face is much more than that.  This website has a very good explanation for ‘face’: http://voices.yahoo.com/the-concept-face-chinese-culture-566703.html?cat=69#post_a_comment


19 Responses to “Uncanny similarities”

  1. I think that the Chinese society is at a much more advanced stage than the Indian one with regards to general equality and status of women. In India, the female body is still seen as a male’s (father/brother or husband) property, to safeguard or employ. Democracy is changing this, but slowly.

    However, I feel the Communist Party’s policies, especially those regarding free speech are severely hampering the intellectual and moral progress of the Chinese people.


    • Thank you Vikram – I am in general agreement with your views about Indian versus Chinese attitude to women.

      Regarding the CCP’s policies, your point about free speech is almost correct. But you should be aware that Chinese citizens have taken to social media in a very big way and do not seem to be afraid to voice their views (as long as it is not anti-CCP!) A lot of social injustice and corruption of individual officials have been exposed and eventually rectified via this medium.

      Intellectual and moral progress are altogether different issues and probably independent of CCP policies.


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