In China, the city is known for its ‘ocean culture’ (haipai) or even ‘overseas culture’ (yangpai), characterised by an acute and receptive sensitivity to foreign ideas, attitudes, styles and opinions.
This is commonly referred to as the distinguishing feature of Shanghai’s culture compared to that of other Chinese cities. The Shanghainese are self-confident; they don’t fear the erosion of their past by international trends, since it was largely these very forces that shaped their city in the first place. They have always been ardent consumers of Western brands and ideas. Their compatriots tend to view this East-meets-West mentality with a degree of scepticism, feeling that they should be more reverent of local tradition. On your arrival into Shanghai, this different environment can result in culture shock for expats.
The city is, and has always been, a melting pot of different ethnic groups, both domestic and international, all drawn here for the same reason: to make money. Evidence of this can be found everywhere. Western businessmen flash their gold cards at high-end bars alongside tycoons from all over the world. Meanwhile, migrant workers are pulling an all-nighter at a high-rise tower construction site, hoping to send a few extra yuan back to their families in the countryside. Shanghai is also the birthplace of China’s new white collar professional. The arrival of foreign corporations in the 1990s raised the demand for educated employees, and salaries are considerably higher than in public sector jobs. The media image of this group has been rather glamorous and, for the Chinese white-collar worker (bai ling), working for a large overseas corporation is a status symbol.
The concept of ‘face’ is prevalent throughout China and can never be underestimated. People go to great lengths to acquire it through displays of wealth or generosity. For example, never insist on paying for a meal hosted by a local, especially if it is in their home. This would be a serious faux pas. Complimenting someone on their appearance or business acumen – especially in front of their pals or colleagues – is a sure winner. Confrontation and public criticism are guaranteed face-destroyers and will inevitably be counter-productive. When in doubt, be lavish with compliments, or at the very least be quiet and respectful.
In business, understanding ‘face’ can mean the difference between success and failure or promotion and demotion. If you want to become a master, study how locals handle social situations and pay attention to those situations where subordinates are deferential to their superiors.
Avoid expansive gestures, emotional displays, unusual facial expressions and sarcasm, as these will generate confused reactions. The Chinese dislike being touched by strangers. Conversely, the Chinese generally stand closer to each other than Europeans or North Americans when they are speaking. Putting your hands in your mouth is considered vulgar, so nail-biting and flossing in public are big no-nos. Shanghai is a smoker’s paradise. Cigarettes are cheap and smoked by many. However, in recent years, laws have been enacted to limit smoking in restaurants and public places, meaning it is now possible to enjoy a meal without someone lighting up next to you.
The Chinese are generally not fond of public displays of affection such as kissing. While you may see women holding the arms of their loved ones, bolder displays are uncommon.
Negative replies are considered impolite. Instead of saying ‘No’, answer indirectly. Replies such as ‘Maybe’, ‘I’ll think about it’ or ‘We’ll see’ will generate a much better reaction and allow the questioner to save face. When addressing a group, acknowledge the most senior person first. Questions about your age, income and marital status are common. If you don’t want to reveal this information, prepare non-specific responses. Do not be surprised if there are periods of silence during dinner. It is a sign of politeness or thought and need not be broken with uncomfortable small talk.
The One-Child Policy was famously introduced in 1979 by then leader Deng Xiaoping to alleviate social, economic and environmental problems. In recent years the policy has begun to be relaxed, and if both parents are from one-child families, they are allowed to have a second child together. Often wealthy families have another child and pay the fine. Some minorities have no restrictions at all, and are allowed as many children as they would like.