The Chabuduo Mindset – Do Details Matter in China?

Chabuduo差不多 – Good enough or not quite?

Tony, an Italian friend and business owner, asked his Chinese employee to clean up a document, add a vertical line on the left and have all text aligned with that line. When he was handed the document back, the requested line was there, some text was aligned with it but some still wasn’t.

When Tony pointed out to his employee that not everything lined up perfectly, she was genuinely surprised. From her perspective the alignment was “chabuduo”, good enough.

If you are German or Northern European in general, you are likely used to things being done according to specifications and high standards. You probably wouldn’t expect less than 100%. As an American, you are may be used to a little more wiggle room. Not everything is quite as perfect, for example with regard to workmanship, but still very good, like 90-95%.

Not so in China. In China, the typical approach is summed up in one word: “chabuduo”, meaning “nearly” or “almost”. For most Chinese it also means “good enough”. You will hear this term a lot.

Attention to detail and consistency

Beyond the chabuduo mindset you will encounter a general difference in attention to details and consistency. This is evident in documents where the formatting seems to be all over the place with different fonts and font sizes. In defense of the formatting chaos, working in China means for many employees switching between English and Chinese keyboard settings. When switching to English, often the font defaults back to a different size and style than used before. Many Chinese people don’t see the difference between different font styles, much like we wouldn’t notice if different styles were used for Chinese characters.

Punctuation is also often inconsistent, with missing blanks or a blank space inserted at the wrong location, often before a comma instead of after. I can easily spot a text written by a Chinese by just looking at punctuation, especially the placing of commas.

Once a Chinese finds an English expression, sentence or entire paragraph good, this English section may get copied and pasted into different documents without further review and adaptation. For example, a product name or other info may not get updated to reflect the current document. Or the overall context may not really fit or flow with the inserted section.

I have heard over and over again that when you task a Chinese employee with English correspondence for a Western customer or with preparation of important English documents, you have to pay attention to the output. To reduce the number of revision iterations, you should give very specific style instructions, ideally with a template, and review everything carefully.

Neat looking documents seem to be a Western pet peeve. Many Chinese would scrabble and strike through on any document, no matter how official it is, without thinking twice about it. If you want to preserve a clean original, make sure to bring a copy to write on.

Chinese pragmatism

Chinese people can be very pragmatic, which can be great if you need to get something done quickly. For example, when I applied for my HSK exam I didn’t bring the requested photo. No problem, the clerk just took out her smartphone, snapped a photo of me, sent it to her work computer and pasted it into my application. In most other countries, I would have been told to come back later with the required photos.

At the same time, there is danger lurking in that pragmatism. Cutting corners and the chabuduo approach to get something done faster and/or cheaper can severely impact the quality of the output. You only have to look at the quality of the workmanship in many buildings in China.

What is your experience with this in China? Is chabuduo thinking driving you crazy or not, and how do you deal with it? Please share in the comments.

If you want to read more about the people and culture element of working in China, check out this Practical Guide – Managing in China. The Practical Guide describes many typical work situations and provides real life examples to illustrate the cultural differences in the workplace. It also gives practical tips and insights to help Western professionals be successful when working in China.


The Chabuduo Mindset – Do Details Matter in China? — 7 Comments

  1. As a 50-year-old American who has lived in Asia and Europe, I disagree that Americans are content with 90% to 95% right. That’s not my mindset or the mindset of any educated American person I’ve ever known, though living for a few years in any country as big and diverse as the U.S. could have surely provided enough examples to confirm your bias. Ask Apple, Google, GE, etc. if 90% right is good enough. Meanwhile, the most unreliable cars I’ve ever owned were Italian, British, and German, in that order.

    Sometimes I’m amused by the passive-aggressive attitudes that Europeans often hold towards the States.

  2. Well their are other instances in which Chinese formalized procedure can drive you cha by duo crazy, so needlessly complex using procedures which fly a in the face oflogic and the possible expedience which modern tech provides, getting a criminal
    Back ground check in shanghai is a great example. No where can the necessary procedure be found online and there at least five red stamps involve before you can submit the form. Transferring money overseas from bank of China is another prime example. It seems they have the belief that if they throw eight redundant hoops in the way of accomplishing a goal they are some how making promoting safety. All the efficiency is reduced and the chabuduo critical creative problem solving reigns supreme

  3. I can confirm all of your points: I am yet to find a Chinese person who who is detailed-focused and strives for perfection, let alone one who is as house-prod as Italians or Spaniards. The quality of an individual’s work and their attention to detail speaks volumes about them.

    One example of “chabuduo” I keep stumbling upon is with screws: Screws that are supposed to be the same size are not only of mixed sizes but also mixed colours and even mixed head types; wrong screwdriver type used for a particular type of screw head, often resulting in stripped screw heads; missing screws (presumably because they run out of screws); etc.

    The guy who came to install the modem did a shitty job of the wiring completely ignoring electromagnetic interference by running long lengths of untwisted pairs. Out of 8 Ethernet sockets 5 didn’t work. One of the sockets fell apart and a spring and other bits went flying in all directions, and then he put it back together with some parts missing. I could have called him to come and re-check the network, but eventually I bought the crimp tool and did it myself.

    I’ve also come across many Chinese designs that are absurd; it’s likely the designers didn’t even test their own creations before the product was released.

    I am in agony when I have to send a product away for servicing. Once I sent an electronic appliance which was under warranty, and when it came back some of the original packaging was missing. Am I being picky? Possibly, but IMO that is extremely unprofessional. Furthermore, if some of the packaging had been lost accidentally, I don’t have a problem with it as long as they say “sorry, we misplaced a bit of packaging and cannot find it, if that’s a problem we’ll find a way to supply the missing packaging”. Of course we are human and we are allowed to make mistakes but we should also admit them. From what I’ve seen the Chinese will usually try to justify their mistakes and f*uck-ups so as not to lose “face”. In this case, however, I reckon they probably didn’t even notice, which is even more worrying.

    Chinese doctors aren’t very good either, constantly finding ways to wring money out of patients by prescribing expensive treatment that’s not necessary (for example MRI scans are often prescribed because they have no side-effects and are expensive), which coupled with their lack of attention to detail doesn’t amount to particularly good healthcare.

    As a consequence, I prefer to do everything myself when I’m in China, or wait till I travel home otherwise.

  4. Pingback: The Chinese "Chabuduo" Attitude | SBE Inspection LIVESBE Inspection LIVE

  5. Pingback: The Chinese "Chabuduo" Attitude - The Sourcing Blog

  6. Upon moving into our apartment in China we noticed water damage on the ceiling above the bathtub. We contacted the management company twice. They came to look, said they’d return the following week to fix it, but never showed. Then they discovered our shower/tub was leaking down to the unit below. They came and worked for a week, tearing the bathroom apart and putting it back together, but they never bothered to fix the ceiling! Damp drywall continues to crumble down. Maybe when the ceiling falls into the tub they’ll fix it.