The Power of Silly

While the Chinese are generally known to be rather formal and traditional and often inscrutable in their facial expressions, one of their greatest skills is the art of being silly. Unlike many conservative Westerners they aren’t the least bit afraid to put themselves in positions so compromising of normal behavior that you can’t help but have a good laugh.

Chinese companies have team building activities just as American companies do.  In China, however, its more about having fun than real competition.
Chinese companies have team building activities just as American companies do. In China, however, its more about having fun than real competition.

I have pondered this particular duality for a long time and I’ve finally concluded that it has to have something to do with the way they view each other. There are definitely hierarchies of power and most certainly hierarchies of wealth and a lot of deference that goes with both.

In the end, however, I don’t believe these hierarchies are viewed personally. Unlike their Western counterparts I don’t think most Chinese view wealth and power as a byproduct of innate personal traits or skills. Anybody can get rich if they work hard and have a good stroke of luck. There is no one who is pre-destined for power and success.

In the end I think it comes down to the extent to which you believe the world is a true meritocracy. To Americans meritocracy is a near religion. The people who get ahead clearly deserve to – they have superior skills that they are superior at putting to good use.

Even the eye patches are silly.  No silliness is spared.
Even the eye patches are silly. No silliness is spared.

The Chinese, on the other hand, accept that some people are smarter than others or stronger than others or perhaps have a better head for business. They don’t, however, believe that life is a meritocracy. The parents you were born to, the village in which you grew up, the education to which you had access to are all essentially random and play a big role in your opportunities for future success.

Personally, I’m a bit in the middle. As a writer I believe that most of the successful writers out there are good writers. I also believe, however, that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of equally good writers you’ve never heard of.

The Chinese version of pie eating, only with blindfolds.  The server is also blindfolded and the third team member has to talk them through it.
The Chinese version of pie eating, only with blindfolds. The server is also blindfolded and the third team member has to talk them through it.

One unexpected consequence of this difference in worldview is that you see little in the way of arrogance within the Chinese culture. Foreigners are considered a wee bit odd but all Chinese more or less consider themselves equals no matter what their financial circumstances or level of career success. You see virtually no behavior that would suggest anyone is looking down on, or feels superior to, anyone else. It’s quite refreshing once you appreciate it’s there.

At the annual dinner all companies hold prior to Spring Festival, there is always a ‘Managers Game’ designed specifically to make the management of the company look silly. Nobody is excused and it’s all in good fun. The activities aren’t in any way mean-spirited or designed to put the manager in a negative light, but if you’re not comfortable looking silly it does take some getting used to it.

Teams aren't assigned by department.  Office and plant employees are mixed together.
Teams aren’t assigned by department. Office and plant employees are mixed together.

If you work at it, however, and play along with enthusiasm you can bring the audience to their feet in admiration. They like a boss with the strength to put themselves out there in an otherwise embarrassing situation.

So, too, it is with team building events, which every company in China holds with all of its employees. We do these in the U.S., too, of course, but the team building events I’ve participated in in the U.S. were very much competitions. Everyone, particularly the management, was dead serious on winning each event.

And the events themselves, of course, were not so much designed to be fun as to highlight some aspect of teamwork in the workplace. Building bridges or boats and figuring out how to turn over a tarp with everyone standing on top of it are common examples.

Tug-of-War is a contest, of course, but not the way they play it.  Nobody pushes it to the point that someone might get hurt.  Mostly they just laugh.
Tug-of-War is a contest, of course, but not the way they play it. Nobody pushes it to the point that someone might get hurt. Mostly they just laugh.

Team-building in China, for the most part, is more about having fun than developing strategic skills or learning to think out of the box. Four-legged races, tug of wars, and carrying balloons between your legs are more common than figuring out how to roll a ball down several sections of disconnected piping.

Ultimately I’ve decided it’s healthy to be silly. It takes a certain level of maturity and self-confidence to really put your pride on the line. And it certainly takes humility, the most important ingredient of leadership in my experience.

I also think it’s an excellent way to really build teamwork. So what if you can build a bridge that meets in the middle. If the people within the team still think of themselves in some sort of personal hierarchy, their teamwork will be ultimately ineffective.

It's clear that people don't participate because they feel they have to.  They're having fun!  Imagine.
It’s clear that people don’t participate because they feel they have to. They’re having fun! Imagine.

Teamwork relies on diversity. To really be a team you have to consider everyone’s opinions equally. That rarely happens in the typical Western team building exercise. The ‘driver driver’ on the team assumes control and everyone else just follows along.

To be honest, no one who knew me before coming to China would have ever described me as silly. I was always serious. But my expression was often a false impression. I often struggled with self-confidence and developing a sense of personal pride.

By teaching me to be silly, however, the Chinese have greatly strengthened my self-confidence and sense of personal pride. Whenever I attend a team-building event or participate in a ‘Managers Game’ I inevitably come away feeling good about myself. I dropped my guard and it was okay. The world didn’t come to an end. I wasn’t humiliated.

In fact, I had fun. And in the end I’ve always believed that fun and teamwork are good for business.

Try it. You’ll be amazed at the power of silly!

If there is a national sport of China I think of it as the Chinese version of hacky sack, known as Jianzi, using a weighted shuttlecock.  EVERYONE does it - young and old alike.  Bus drivers and taxi drivers are on a break and they inevitably pull out the Jianzi.
If there is a national sport of China I think of it as the Chinese version of hacky sack, known as Jianzi, using a weighted shuttlecock. EVERYONE does it – young and old alike. Bus drivers and taxi drivers on break can inevitably be seen next to their vehicle bouncing a Jianzi – usually with great skill.

NOTE:  The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale.  They are available on most online outlets.  Or send an e-mail to avam.hale@gmail.com.  I have a few samples left I will send you for free. (US only please)

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.