It may sound funny on a blog that discusses cultural differences, but one of the most important paradigms of intercultural communication is the fact that human behaviour isn’t always determined by culture – in fact, most of the time, it isn’t.
In intercultural situations, people generally say that the other person’s behavior is a cultural thing because, let’s face it, that is usually the most noticeable difference. And it’s super easy to just say it’s cultural, ’cause then you don’t have to think about it anymore. I do it too, all the time. When someone with a different cultural background does something I find odd, my brain immediately goes to the cultural explanation, and before I know it I’ve got the entire situation analysed and explained in terms of cultural differences.
Here’s an example: during my time as a university exchange coordinator I would often have Chinese exchange students in my office. They always kept their coat on during our meetings, which struck me as strange and somewhat rude. In the Netherlands, if you keep your coat on during a meeting it’s a signal you’re not really invested in the meeting, you could leave anytime. You’re not even bothering to take your coat off. So then I decided it had to do with their cultural background. Perhaps these students were nervous as they went to visit someone higher up in the hierarchy and hierarchy is much more important in China than in the Netherlands. They probably forgot to take their coats off because of their nerves. Or maybe in China keeping your coat on is not considered rude and I was just too sensitive based on my Dutch background. After all, there are lots of things Chinese people do that other cultures would consider rude, but they think of as perfectly normal. So yes, I tried to find a cultural explanation and concluded swiftly that it was probably a Chinese cultural issue.
However, some years later I was living in China myself and the same thing happened: I was teaching at a school and everyone kept their coat on during class. But this time I realised why: it’s freezing cold in many of China’s buildings. The school I worked at was no exception, so keeping your coat on was the only way to keep warm. This is common practice, you see a lot of shops, schools and offices in which everyone is wearing their coat inside. It was only then that I realised we are rather spoiled in the Netherlands. Even during the coldest of winters you’d be able to walk around in a t-shirt in any building, if you’d want to. It’s just a matter of cranking up the heating. In many public buildings in China this is not an option, as they are either too drafty, or without a properly working heating system. Often, in countries like China there is no money for luxury items like heaters in schools, so people keep their coats on.
What’s the moral of this story? Keeping your coat on is indeed typically Chinese, but it has nothing to do with Chinese culture. No hierarchy or politeness issues, it’s just fucking freezing. Very often, the simple explanation is the right one!