Reciprocity in China

A few years ago, I asked a woman I know why she decided to go to graduate school to study cultural psychology. She told me she had been in the Peace Corps in Africa, I forget where. Maybe Kenya. Early in her stay a native had been a big help to her. To thank him, she baked him a cake. This angered him. “You think you can pay me back with a cake?” he said. To pay me back, give me something I want, he told her.

A more subtle version of the same thing happens in China. About a month ago, the friend of mine who had invited me to come here told me I had been invited to visit a university near Shanghai by a professor of psychology there who was a dean at the university. I wrote to the person who invited me:

I look forward to visiting you in —-. I don’t have a lot of plans; I could come almost any weekend. When would be a good time for me to visit?

Her assistant replied:

Professor —- will not be free on 6-9 Nov 2008.  And she will not be free on 15 Nov 2008.  For other days, that’s OK.  I will come back when I get more message from Professor —-.

I replied:

Thanks. A weekend later than those will be fine.

Her assistant replied:

This evening, I talked with Professor —- about your visit to —-.  Professor —- is expecting to explore any possibility of research collaboration with you. Professor —- mentioned the best time will be the last several days of November or early December for your visit to —-.

I replied:

Late November or early December is fine with me. I do not have any other plans.

Then I got this:

Professor —- is wondering whether you are interested in some collaboration, such as psychology research design guidance, psychology paper modification (the papers is written in English, but may not as good as expected), and some other research project collaboration.

I was surprised — just the Peace Corp volunteer was surprised. I replied:

I would be happy to talk about research design guidance with Professor —-. I cannot say more than that because I don’t know anything about her research. So I don’t know if our research interests overlap. About paper modification — improving the English — I am less sure. I am busy helping students and colleagues here at Tsinghua with their English.

The reply:

Professor —- will only ask you to improve the English for only one paper, which she expect to have that paper be published in USA.

I was puzzled what to say to this. Before I could reply, I got another email:

Professor —- talked with me this afternoon.  She mentioned that the paper is related to ERP.  She needs your help with the English language improvement with the paper, after her graduates’ [students’] translation from Chinese to English.

I replied:

I just finished spending many hours fixing the English of a paper written by a non-Tsinghua researcher whom I will never meet. I am not eager to repeat the experience. However, I am happy to help Professor —- with the English of her paper if she will help me with my Chinese.

The reply:

Professor —- said that that’s OK.

But it wasn’t okay. I heard nothing for a week and wrote again:

When should we figure out the details of my visit?

The reply:

This afternoon, we discussed how we can benefit to each other, when you are here. Would you please list out what you can offer us, and what you expect us offer you, when you are in Suzhou?

I replied:

During my trip to —-, I hoped to learn about —-, the university, and the research being done there. I haven’t traveled much in China so I thought the trip would be fun.

As for what I might offer you, I wrote The Shangri-La Diet, a New York Times bestseller that describes an entirely new approach to weight control; I am a statistics expert; and I have done innovative work in experimental design as well. Thousands of people read my blog because they think I have interesting views about the world. You can learn more about my work at My blog is at

Why did you invite me to visit?

The reply:

We discussed your response.  And we need to mention the following two points: We need someone to improve our paper in English.  But the paper has not finished yet. This is not a good season for sightseeing in —- because of the cold whether. For above the two points, we cannot fix the time when you come to —-.  We may arrange your visit later. Keep posted.

My reply:

Do I understand you correctly? You invited me to —- “to improve [your] paper in English”?

No reply. In other words, the answer was yes.

Yesterday I met a graduate student from the Philippines. She’s studying architecture here on a scholarship from the Chinese government. How do you like it here? I asked. When she got here, she said, she was positive. “I was all ‘ ‘It’s an amazing place.’ ” Now, after more than a year, she isn’t positive. Whenever someone does something for you it turns out they want something in return, she said, but you don’t find out right away. She didn’t want to give details. “I should stop talking,” she said. I told her I’d had the same experience — the invitation I just described.

The whole thing reminded me of something I wrote about Robert Gallo, the AIDS researcher:

A researcher in Gallo’s lab once told the boss that Einstein was his favorite scientist; he especially admired Einstein’s magnanimity. Gallo replied, “You are naive. Einstein could afford to be magnanimous because he was a genius.” The other scientist asked, “You mean magnanimity is good only if you’re a genius?” Gallo said, “Yeah, because then you don’t have to worry about the competition.”

And the reciprocity norms of rich countries take the form they do because the countries are rich.

23 Replies to “Reciprocity in China”

  1. This is fascinating. But are you sure you have your causality right? Maybe some countries are rich because they have less selfish reciprocity norms

  2. Thanks, Alexis. I find it hard to believe that economic prosperity, a big complicated thing, depends on reciprocity norms to a big extent. Maybe a small extent. But you’re right, I’m not sure.

  3. Didn’t you find it strange that you were communicating through the professor’s assistant? Or does the professor not speak/write English?

  4. I had similar frustrating experiences when I was working in Taiwan for a month in the 90’s. There was a strange quid pro quo dance going on all the time, and I felt like I didn’t understand the rules at all. My Taiwanese friends were appalled at times by my obtuseness – what was so obvious and natural to them felt awkward to me.

    Since Taiwan is pretty wealthy (compared to the mainland), I’m more inclined to attribute the experience to cultural differences, not affluence.

  5. Trying to think of an easy-to-summarize example… While in Taiwan, I was invited to the home of the parents of an engineer I was working with. His dad, Mr. Lee, was a fairly affluent businessman, I don’t know what business he was in.

    I was treated to a very nice, big dinner. There were a couple other guests who also worked with us, but I was the only American, and clearly the “guest of honor”. I didn’t speak much Mandarin, and the Lees knew little English, so we mainly talked through my colleague R.L., acting as an interpreter.

    Anyway, as I was leaving at the end of the evening, thanking my hosts, Mr. Lee asked when I was going back to the States.

    me: Next Saturday.
    Mr. Lee: Come here on Friday and we can discuss some things.
    me: I’m sorry, I’ll be up in Taipei all next week.
    R.L. (quietly but urgently): Say yes!
    me: But I can’t…
    R.L.: Just say yes!
    me (to Mr. Lee): Sure, next Friday.
    Mr. Lee (smiling): Good!

    The conversation with R.L. afterwards…

    me: What does he want to talk to me about?
    R.L.: I don’t know, but you had to say yes.
    me: But I have no intention of going there. You know I’ll be in Taipei. Is he expecting me to show up?
    R.L.: Maybe, maybe not. But it was very rude to say you wouldn’t.

    Needless to say, I didn’t go back to the Lee’s, and I never found out what he wanted from me. It seemed to be more than just an invitation for another social visit, there was something specific on his mind.

    I was a little baffled that in this case a false commitment was the correct response, rather than a polite, honest refusal. There are two things going on here, I think. One is that I owed them some kind of favor after their hospitality. The other is that Asian emphasis on “saving face”, where being polite is much more important than being honest. (There’s some of that in American culture, but usually we limit it to insincere compliments.)

  6. Thanks, Mike W. That’s roughly as mysterious as my example. In my example, how was I supposed to know that the original purpose of the visit (explore research collaboration) wasn’t the real one?

  7. I was a little baffled that in this case a false commitment was the correct response, rather than a polite, honest refusal. There are two things going on here, I think. One is that I owed them some kind of favor after their hospitality. The other is that Asian emphasis on “saving face”, where being polite is much more important than being honest. (There’s some of that in American culture, but usually we limit it to insincere compliments.)

    By that measure, Los Angeles is part of Taiwan. The correct response to a social invitation you know you won’t accept is, “That sounds GREAT! I can’t WAIT! I am totally gonna try to make it!”

    Great shoes, by the way. Where’d you find them?

  8. Well, I think this kind of reciprocity is very common among Chinese universities, if Univ.A invite the professors of Univ.B for a conference, when the professors of Univ.B have some programs or conferences, they are expected to invite Univ.A. Because the program or conference is not considered as a matter of acdemic exchange, rather than a opportunity to share the money.
    You case is quite reasonable in our logic: first, for the university, all the Chinese universities need to strength their overseas relationships to “built the world first-class university”, and strong relationships will bring the money – the national program to the university.
    Second, for the department. The professor use the money of department to invite you, and the accommodation especially the airplane tickets are expensive according to the exchange rate. So the department would like to ask something back, even just a good willing or wishes. I guess the professors want you and Mike to express the intent to widen the cooperation, including to invite them to the U.S. This mutual-beneficial intent is more important than what you actually do – it’s OK if you promised but do not carry out due to some reason. That’s why Mike was asked to say YES in Taiwan, I think what they need is just a good willing to cooperation.
    Last, for the professor, though the paper on a international journal will benefit her a lot, It makes no sense to ask you directly as a return. You know there are many paper companies where she won’t spent alot (about US $200) to get her paper modified. Why she prefered to ask a professor to do so? Perhaps, the assistant lose the focus of the professor, maybe the professor just said “ask for mutul-benefical cooperation, such as a course to the students, even a paper modification”.
    Though I have no confidence in the morality of my fellow Chinese, I believe the international cooperation is what they want, and an English paper is just a piece of cake.

  9. I am a Chinese. This really happends in some places of China, but I do not think this could be attributed to just “cultural differences”.

    I have a theory, so called “reciprocity” is related to high population desity, especially high immigrant population, without a stable common culture.

    In fact, in Chinese, so called “reciprocity” is called “市侩” (Shi Kuai), with a derogative tincture.

  10. Wong China, I don’t think she could just pay $200 to get her paper fixed. It is technical psychology material, someone not a professor of psychology would probably make a bunch of mistakes. I’m sure the assistant didn’t misquote the professor; the request for English help, when it came, was very clear. I don’t mind at all that they expected to get something back; the problem for me was that this wasn’t made clear at the beginning. In the beginning all that was mentioned was “research collaboration” — nothing about English help. Had they been more upfront about what they wanted, and the paper not needing too much work, I would have been happy to help them.

  11. The reason why they didn’t mention the english paper help at the beginning may be that their request is known to all, and they didn’t want others know the paper modifying request.
    And I felt the assistant’s letter was with impoliteness, his/her request sounds like a command, this goes against the basic culture core of the chinese-modest and politeness. So when i firstly read your emails, I felt something wrong with the assistant, maybe it was just his/her english problem(both paper and letter)…

  12. Seth, now I understand what you mean, but I still don’t know why can’t she welcome your coming without any condition, and give you a nice reception to establish a tie of friendship, after that, talk about the article (or ask you to be a co-writer). You would not refuse a hospitable host, right?
    Frankly speaking, we Chinese are very cunning, it’s hard to see any genuine reciprocity or dedication, as well as any awkward bargain. Chinese are good at packing the nakedly exchanges into kindness and friendship. So I just wonder why she has to be so honest to make it as a condition before you go…I felt a little sick to go on.
    The norms of reciprocity, love, thanksgiving, selfless, devotion, service…are the mental terms correlated to the cultural background, especially religious background. And the gentle side of human society is what social scientists pursue, without that, the richer people get, the poorer society is.

  13. Wong China, yes, I agree with you, “she [could] welcome [my] coming without any condition, and give [me] a nice reception to establish a tie of friendship, [and] after that talk about the article” — that would have been fine.

  14. OK, as a Chinese, I have to admit I didn’t figure out what was going on.
    I also run into such awkward communications now and then. oops.

    I suppose sometimes people just feel an invisible psychological compulsion to show hospitality. Not exactly because they want to be friendly or they are really that happy to having friends around, it’s just according to such psychological compulsion (maybe cultural as well), having friends & showing hospitality indicate a positive reputation and good social status.

  15. Can one incident represent all of China? A better question is: Can one incident shed any light? If it was completely weird, maybe not, but the experiences of the Filipino graduate student convinced me that it was not completely weird.

  16. As an American who’s lived in China for about 2.5 years, I agree with Prof. Roberts that this kind of thing is common in China. In my more cynical moments (I try to keep those to a minimum) it seems like many people are only interested in “friendship” with me so they can ask me for a favor, something they often do quite soon after initiating the “friendship”. I also would be fine with a straight-up proposal for an exchange, but that is often not how it goes. Even a request after some kind of hospitality would be OK ,though this may also seem a bit weird to me, depending on the details. It seems like I just don’t have the background assumptions about how reciprocity works that the Chinese do.

    I think Prof. Roberts is also right that it has to do with poverty. In poor societies, highly local cooperation is a major source of social and material resources, and these norms become internalized. People from developed countries are more willing to make less binding social relationships, because the marginal benefit of an additional relationship is much smaller. The fact that you see the same norms in Taiwan suggests to me that norms like this are sticky; they outlast the economic conditions that gave rise to them (just an armchair hypothesis, for what it’s worth).

    I should mention that I have several very good Chinese friends, whom I’m happy to help anytime.

  17. In my brief experience in China, this sort of thing is rare. What is much more common is sort of the reverse: Where people are friendly when it seems to me they have nothing to gain from our friendship.

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