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Published on Jun 6, 2013 in Asia, China, News

China’s Fascination with Titles

Titles are very important to the average Chinese. China is a very class conscious society based on Confucian principles where increasing respect is shown for those with greater hierarchical positions in a society that’s vertically structured and based on authoritarianism. Subsequently, one’s title and social rank assumes a great deal of importance. In China’s business world, your title is everything. It says not only who you are, but also conveys your authority and the respect you should be accorded.

I was reminded of this fact just last week when I visited a close friend of mine, Mark Iwinski, at the Old Corkscrew Golf Course near where I, and my partner Dave Dodge, reside. Since his golf course is the permanent residence of many of my golf balls which litter the course’s water hazards and dense vegetation, I occasionally have lunch with Mark after I’ve purchased replacement ammunition at the pro shop. This past Saturday Mark showed me a business card he received from a Chinese businessman who was playing his course. The card, without exaggeration, had five lines of titles, honorary degrees, and organizations to which he was a member, below his name. It’s something that we may find arrogant and self-serving in the West, but is considered appropriate and self-serving in China. Subsequently, after I commented on, Mark suggested that I write a blog on why the average Chinese businessman finds their title, and even associations, to be so critical.

chinese business card hand overFirst off, everyone like’s a great title, and I’m no exception. Western titles are usually simple, such as president, CEO, manager, vice-president, director, or even associate. In Asia, the grander the title the better. Kim Jong Il, the North Korean Dictator, for example has, according to The Economist, 1,200 official titles including deity of the planet, ever-victorious general, supreme commander at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism and the United States, and eternal bosom of hot love! You can send inquiries on that last title straight to The Economist.

To your average Western businessperson, your pay package, responsibilities, and work environment is usually far more important than your title. But in China, a person’s job title takes on an importance that’s very difficult for most Westerners to comprehend. Part of the reason for this is that China is a very bureaucratic and authoritarian society. One’s title or position in that bureaucracy signifies one’s power. The position and title one holds in China’s vertically structured society also signifies one’s social status, role and rank, as well as the amount of influence one can exert. In addition, China’s Confucian undertones also emphasizes hierarchical respect. In other words, the higher up you are on the food chain, the greater respect you should be accorded.

In a land of 1.3 billion people with a dynamic work ethic and a focus on achievement, nearly everyone, from workers to management, want the importance of their job acknowledged by their title. They want the hierarchical respect. Chinese employers know this and are extremely creative in inventing titles for their employees that convey an elevated social position. Western companies, especially multi-national corporations, on the other hand, struggle with many of these titles as some titles simply don’t exist, make sense, or else imply a degree of power and position which is not consistent with the employee’s job description. For example, according to Juan Antonio Fernandez, a Professor at China Europe International Business School, and journalist Laurie Underwood, the title of HR Manager may be a standard and respected corporate title outside of China, but the title of manager is generally considered unimpressive in China. Bryan Huang of BearingPoint sums it up by saying the typical Chinese reaction is: How can I face my friends when they are all directors and I am just a manager? This is in spite of the fact that, in a multi-national corporation, the director title is most-often reserved for regional-level managers. Subsequently, in order to satisfy the need of employees for social status, employers have made up new job titles so that the employee will have an increased feeling of importance with a corresponding increase in job satisfaction.

Another solution to title sensitivity is offered by Korn/Ferry’s Helen Tantau who advocates the creation of internal and external corporate titles. An employee can then use their standard title when working with colleagues outside of China, but use separate China-specific titles within the country. In the above example, a multi-national corporation employee who is the HR Manager locally would use that title when communicating outside of China while using the title Director of HR Services within China.

In addition to business titles, honorific titles are also important. One’s education, and just about every honor one receives, is also frequently placed on a business card. It’s therefore common on Chinese business cards for honorific titles to be attached after one’s surname or full name. For example, in the West we use the title of doctor for someone who has received a doctor’s degree. That’s not necessarily true in China where it can also be used as an honorific title. No classes necessary. In martial arts you may have the title of teacher father or teacher grandfather after your name.

If someone attends a business program at a leading university, such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and so on, then the university and course is also frequently listed on the business card. An example might be Graduate of Yale University program on … or, Author of Harvard University Paper on … Even though the course may only have been a week long, or the paper part of a class assignment, the schools name looks great on their business card. Some businessmen seem to take it as a personal challenge to fill the space between their name and the bottom edge of their card.

It’s all about setting yourself apart and raising your societal standing in a society that assigns a great deal of importance to achievements. Consequently, one’s business card can sometimes resemble a mini-resume.


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