If you have read The Geography of Thought (I wrote about it here), you might already be familiar with this concept. If you aren't I highly recommend getting acquainted, but in the meantime here's a short summary.
According to Nisbett's theory, the ancient Greek's dependence on trading and communicating with other nations contributed to the concept of agency, while the agricultural-based Chinese society valued harmony above anything else, because farm work required cooperation instead of competition. Since undisturbed teamwork was crucial for survival, the focus of the society was on the group and the relations among group members, rather than individual members or their personal traits. This seems to be completely opposed to early Greek society, where trading and craftsmanship (and possibly piracy) required — and thus created — a strong sense of individuality, independence and competitiveness. It also supported the birth of the scientific, "objective" world view, logic and abstract thinking.
This difference in thinking creates completely different world views. Growing up in our own culture, we take its values and perspectives for granted and can't even imagine having a different view on things until we get exposed to an alternate way. Even then, most likely we'll find the other person's behavior to be "weird" or "irrational." It takes time, experience and a conscious effort to really understand the motives that are so different from ours.
The concept of harmony was described and cultivated from early times in China. Confucius's vision of the ideal society is of a harmonious one; hierarchy and the use of rules and rituals are the way to maintain this perfect state. Harmony is prevalent on every level of society, starting with the family (where the rules also decide the inner hierarchy) all the way up to the emperor (who's governing skills are evaluated by the level of harmony he creates and maintains in the empire). And despite the several thousand years and the purge against Confucianist values during the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism still heavily influences Chinese society. Just to mention one important example, "Harmonious Society" was the signature ideology of Hu Jintao, the Former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, in 2005.
Keeping the harmony at the cost of honesty or efficiency can be unthinkable for the Western mind. Especially in the US, where the ideas of openness and fairness are so important, and also private and professional matters tend to be dealt with separately. But in a Chinese workplace and society, personal and work relations are intertwined. (I'll write about connections in another post, as it's a topic worth being discussed at length.) The need to protect harmony and avoid any loss of face is so strong that it can override other objectives.
At a Western workplace, colleagues and especially supervisors have no problem pointing out mistakes or making suggestions about improvements for employees. If done in the spirit of fairness, this doesn't harm the personal relations. Everybody understands and accepts that the priority is to make the work effective. In contrast, in a Chinese workplace nobody is going to openly voice any criticism (If anyone does, they will be considered very rude.). Any kind of negative feedback is always delivered with a lot of praising and with careful wording. Very often efficiency is compromised by these considerations towards personal sensitivity, since protecting good personal relations has more priority than getting work done quickly.
So if you work with Chinese people, expect politeness but also learn to read between the lines. If after presenting a project plan to your coworker or boss they say, "What a great idea! Why don't you work out the details and we talk about it more?" then chances are that it was not praise but a careful criticism hinting that you should work on it some more. Also, if your presentation receives some honest praise for certain elements, probably you want to check the others for possible problems. Most likely nobody will give you clear feedback about how they see your work. You will need to look for clues.
It is like this because confrontation is to be avoided at all costs, and as a result some things cannot be said. Chinese people developed a strong sensitivity for what is not said. Westerners value honesty and openness, so they tend to believe that what's not said is not meant. This difference can create serious misunderstandings. And while we might be fast to label this "confrontation-avoiding," or non-direct communication as "dishonest" or "sneaky," it's important to see the bigger underlying ideas and to understand the different priorities in values.
Also, while it's easy to see non-confrontational attitudes as "dishonest" and "coward," it's worth it to look at the benefits that such an attitude can bring. Chinese people are significantly more peaceful, and there is much less open aggression in public places in Chinese societies than in Western ones. Their big cities tend to be safer as well. Since they don't see "standing up" as a virtue, there is less confrontation in everyday life.
It's very important to know, however, that not confronting (not "standing up") doesn't mean complete submission. Just because someone doesn't argue with you it doesn't mean that they agree with you. Chinese people see patience as not only a virtue but also an important surviving skill. They would rather live for another day and wait for a better opportunity to change things than to risk everything in an immediate confrontation. It is not cowardice, it's just a very different strategy. And a very effective one! If you look at the long history of China, you will see that they were able to prevail through very difficult times and against countless other nations, often being defeated by more aggressive countries. But China is still there, strong and steady, carrying on their thousand year old traditions and ideologies. This definitely deserves respect and hopefully inspires a deeper understanding of the system that is able to survive so many centuries of hardship.
To summarize: harmony is not only a superficial avoidance of confrontation but a deeper approach to life, one that prefers patience and endurance over open conflicts. This idea permeates the whole of Chinese society and is present in every aspect of their lives.
Here are some other articles on harmony:
In the next post I will talk about the personal relationships (guanxi) and their importance in Chinese society.