Up Close In China

13 Jun 2005|LiAnne Yu

As China continues to climb in prominence as a world market, it’s become common for US companies hoping to expand in China to conduct focus groups and individual interviews with customers, especially in Shanghai and Beijing. But for companies really hoping to make a significant impact in this country, deeper insights are required. As such, early mover companies are hiring ethnographers to provide a richer, more culturally complex view of the country that inspires both strategists and design teams.

The pay off is tremendous, but doing this well is not easy. Here are some tips:

What are the special considerations of conducting ethnographies in China? Here’s some of what we’ve learned over our 10 years of ethnography experience there:

Western faces: Don’t be afraid to bring in Westerners. Their presence can be leveraged positively as Chinese tend to associate them with honesty and frankness. However, it’s best to be selective about when to include Westerners in the actual research. For example, if a project requires shopping along with a Chinese consumer, it’s better to have locals or Asian American researchers accompany the participants because a Western face will change the way retailers react.

Space constraints: Homes and offices in China tend to be smaller than in the U.S., with more people living and working within that smaller space. When preparing field equipment, anticipate this in planning video shots, interview dynamics, etc. In addition, there may not be the same standard for privacy in homes or offices. Even if you specify that you only want to speak with certain family members or employees, the others are bound to be nearby and within ear shot. Build this into your expectations, make the most of familial and employee interactions, and build in opportunities to get individuals outside of their homes or offices if that’s necessary.

“Saving and giving face”: In China, face is a complex reality that incorporates the concept of trust. In the West, trust suggests that “I can rely on what you say.” But in the Chinese culture, if you are someone I can trust, it means that you will protect my feelings and enhance my pride in front of other people. Remember to help respondents “save face” in front of their superiors or employees. Don’t put them on the spot regarding their familiarity with technology in front of others. If you give them face at key moments, they will be more likely to open up to you about the areas they are less confident in, knowing you will not embarrass them.

Encourage criticism: Chinese respondents are typically polite and hold back from being critical because they fear they will make you “lose face.” Emphasize that you are an unbiased researcher and that their feedback is critical for your client to improve their product/service/brand offerings. Also, Chinese respondents are more likely to be open if they have a better sense of what you, the researcher, are like. Share some of your impressions of China and let them know that you are looking to them as the experts who will teach you something about their lives.

Play the honored guest: Chinese home owners tend to take a lot of pride in the presentation of their homes and in hosting guests. Expect snacks, tea, and a slightly more formal tone than you would get in an average U.S. home ethnography. You are an honored guest in their home, and in many cases, the first Westerner. Take the time to participate in the rituals of accepting snacks and tea, and complimenting them on what they have served. This will help form rapport and trust.

Status: Business owners are generally of a higher social status in China than their peers in the U.S. For example, a small business owner is behaviorally more similar to a mid-large size business owner in the U.S. than to a small business entrepreneur. Even small businesses are very hierarchical in China, and bosses are concerned with maintaining their status. Ethnographers skilled in understanding Chinese business culture will display the proper level of respect.

Locations and languages: Consider going outside the Tier 1 cities to explore the bigger growth opportunities in China. We particularly recommend Chengdu, Xi’an, and Kunming. When working with interpreters, make sure they are skilled in both Mandarin and local dialects.

prev next