How Cultural Differences Really Affect Research in China

Socio-cultural Differences

With the increasing interest in capturing opportunities of its growing consumer markets, many companies are looking to conduct research in China.

Most of the research literature and experience comes from occident where customer research has long been routinely conducted. And whether as part of a multinational project or for a standalone one, most companies will model their research design for China on existing research protocols and methodologies developed in the West.

However, rarely can a study designed for one market be applied to others without some sort of adaptation. There are a number of differences in the socio-cultural context that will affect how research needs to be conducted. Beyond language and other obvious differences are most subtle cultural traits that need to be considered. And perhaps none the more so than in many Asian cultures where a number of variables, if not accounted for, may result in unreliable results.

Following are a few examples of how cultural differences can affect research. Although applicable to many Asian cultures, these are more specific to China and to various forms of market research.

Direct Questioning

Even the most basic concept of asking a question directly can present differences. Direct questioning rarely provides insightful results, but this is particularly true in China where people tend not to express their opinions directly, especially if they are perceived as negative or in disaccord. In a culture where people prefer harmony over discord, research respondents will tend to provide an answer they see as “appropriate”.


Similarly to direct questioning, answers from self-rating questions in particular should be taken lightly, considering that in China, as in many Asian cultures, people tend not to admit difficulty easily. In a study in which we asked a few hundred people to rate the ease or difficulty with which they completed a task with a product, most answers tended towards the “very easy”, while observation showed that almost everyone encountered many difficulties or even failed to complete their task.

Closed Network

Although called a collectivist society, personal or business relationships in China are often limited to the “Guanxi” (which can loosely translate to a network of relationships). Anyone outside of this closed immediate network is considered an outsider and would have difficulty to be even considered without a reference. This may create obvious difficulties for researchers to access people’s homes, offices or otherwise private lives, not to mention getting honest opinions.

How to Adapt?

So all this makes it sound like the minds of the China markets are like impenetrable fortresses. Of course one could think that one easy way to overcome the above barriers to insights would be to ask friends and family. Knowing respondents personally or through a common acquaintance would probably not only open the door to access respondents, but help getting more open opinions, right?

It’s Not about Networking

As opposed to what some people have claimed, the solution is not in recruiting through your network of friends and business connections, regardless of the importance of the “Guanxi” in Chinese culture.

Yes, research needs to be adapted to cultural differences but if there is anything that does not change, it is who and how to recruit. Sure, once in a while, for informal research, asking around a few people through your connections will do. But before starting to break established rules you have to understand why they were there in the first place. There are reasons why recruitment protocols exit, and these apply anywhere. First, in most research, you want respondents to be exactly representative of the target customers. This is what random sampling with a screener is for. Even in the unlikely even that one could find a bunch of exactly matching profiles through a network of relationships, there is still the fact that the very relationship may influence the results. And always relying on relationships means you may end up researching the same people, which can lead to results representative of that network only.

Furthermore, a researcher part of the group to study is likely to bias the research, if only for the simple fact that complete objectivity is much more difficult. This is why as a general research practice, researchers don’t know participants and are outsiders. Research does require an understanding of a culture, but does not require being part of it.

Induce Confidence

So this doesn’t solve the problem we have of getting insights from a market in which people are more resistant to giving their opinions, especially to a researcher they don’t know.

Yes getting true answers in the China markets may be more difficult considering these above cultural particularities, but no one said research was supposed to be easy.

First, it is the researcher’s job to induce confidence in respondents. One important part, for example, is to place more emphasis on the anonymous nature of the research, that the respondents’ views and opinions will not be shared with others, etc. Another concept to emphasize more than in western markets is the fact that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. The researcher must be twice as careful not to take position or suggest their own opinion through verbal language and non-verbal language.

The researcher will also be skilled in making respondents comfortable with their presence, and make him or herself un-intrusive.

Projective Techniques

Even in all confidence and with a great rapport, people may not always speak their true minds. One of our preferred approaches, particularly in China, for going beyond the surface to deeper, more truthful insights is using projective techniques. As described in “Projective Techniques: Eliciting Deeper Thoughts”, projective techniques can help tap into unknown or unconscious thoughts, but are also effective at simply bypassing resistance to answers by getting people to speak their minds indirectly through metaphors, which is particularly helpful in cultures where even simple opinion is not so openly expressed.

In one research, participants of a focus group on the surface level would say not much more about a bank than it was the biggest, it was stable, they could trust it, etc. However, through a character-creation technique which allowed them to speak their true minds through something else, participants drew a different picture: “Cocky”, “Arrogant”, etc.

This sort of exercise might be just what companies need to uncover the big break which might otherwise not have surfaced.

Research as Usual

Ethnographic research in many of its forms has been practiced for ages in many different cultures and contexts, from business settings in large western cities to the aboriginals in the depths of Australia or in the Amazon. China, although a new potentially large market for many companies, is not a mysterious impenetrable market that can only be unlocked by some magical connections, as some make it, and it doesn’t require reinventing research. Nor is it about a “Western” way of thought versus a “Chinese” one. In other words you don’t have to be Chinese to understand Chinese.

Yes, researchers do need to be sensible to, and understand, the socio-cultural context in both research design and interpretation, but then again that’s just how research should always be, anywhere.

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David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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