A Southern Chick’s Analysis of Restaurant Service in Shanghai and the Concept of “Kuan-Hsi”

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take a three-week trip to Shanghai, China. As part of the class, I was asked to make a presentation of some sort reflecting my experience there. I decided to discuss food service in Shanghai. Culturally, it’s expected that differences will emerge with Americans used to western service, and Chinese servers used to delivering Eastern style services.

Chinese service, like most of Chinese culture, is based upon the Confucian idea of Kuan-hsi. This concept is defined as the family as “microcosm” of society in the collective (Chang and Holt 251).  If a Western tourist can learn a bit about Kuan-hsi, an understanding about Chinese culture can be reached, which makes it easier for everyone to have a good time. Those who embrace Kuan-hsi understand that there is an ideal agreeable relationship tier that bleeds into the interpersonal relationships, even a relationship as shallow as server and customer (251).  At once seen as both humanistic and pragmatic, Kuan-hsi focuses on society as a whole whereas Western society focuses on individual value as perceived by the server.

Kuan-hsi’s goal is “social harmony” over individual pleasure (251).This idea suggests a different notion of individual value as opposed to collective value, which can be seen in practice in Chinese restaurant service. For the Westerner to understand how Chinese operate on a daily basis, we must have at least a basic understanding of Kuan-hsi (251).  In Chang and Holt’s article “More Than Relationship: Chinese Interaction and the Principle of Kuan-Hsi” the author explains, “Chinese interpersonal relationships are not conducted simply according to a set of well-prescribed rules. Instead, the Chinese world of interpersonal relations is complicated by clear distinctions based on the closeness of a given relationship, and consequently, all requests for preferential treatment that arise out of one’s special connections” (258). Because a Westerner cannot expect to be embraced as family by the Chinese server, the service given is sometimes misunderstood as rudeness. However, the Chinese server operates from a vantage point of mutal reciprocity (252). The American tourist might believe that by paying for a service, she has done her part of the relationship that is expected. However, the Chinese server operates from the expectation that money paid is not enough to foster relationship, so they don’t always go the extra mile to ensure the customer feels appreciated. To them, they feel that service equals pay and that’s all. As a result, the American customer might misconstrue the Chinese server as rude when that is not their intention. One thing I noticed was that after the menus were dropped off, the server would not come back to the table unless they were closed. This is different from the American notion of prompt attention. One of the reasons I feel that the servers take their time is that there is they don’t get tipped.  Here are a few differences I noticed right away.


This is not to imply that Chinese service is somehow worse than American service; it’s just different.  I developed an S.O.S. system that rates the stress of the server, because I believe that the higher the S.O.S. level indicates the less satisfactory the dining experience. After visiting several restaurants and shops in China, I gave them ratings based on this system.

happy waitress

Kuan-hsi explanation: “This norm serves to substantiate the behaviors deemed appropriate to each individual who occupies a specific role” (254). The server/customer does what is expected by the other and everything is ok. Here is an example of a “One Star” waitress-smiling and happy to have your business.

Two Stars: Moderately Pleasant Dining Experience


Kuan-hsi explanation: There a minimum of discomfort/misunderstanding of either the server’s duty or the customer’s reaction that is most likely a cultural misunderstanding. Each has a different idea of “the rules” and implied infractions but are able to mostly overlook the issue.

Three Stars: Moderately Unpleasant Experience

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Kuan-hsi explanation: There is a definite mutual feeling of cultural disconnect, and the server might not understand what the American is asking for (language/cultural barrier) or the reasons behind them, which causes the server and/or the customer to experience a mutal dissatisfaction.  I can testify that one thing almost always causes a moderately stressed/extremely stressed server: asking for separate checks. The Chinese do not do this; in fact, they often have playful fights over who gets to pay for the party’s checks. Amercians—not so much. The Chinese server is not expecting such a request and might think it is just another incident of Americans being difficult.

Four Stars: Unpleasant Dining Experience

sookie 4 

Kuan-hsi explanation: There are probably 2 or more cultural disconnects happening to cause this kind of stress. For example, the American crowd is asking for separate checks (with a non-English speaking server) AND is demanding refills (which is not a usual expectation). The stress is mutual as is the dissatisfaction. This is an obvious disruption of social harmony, and as Confucius says, sacrifices spiritual contentment.

Five Stars: Hellish Dining Experience


Kuan-hsi explanation: complete and utter lack of Kuan-hsi. One or more causes might be the root of the problem, and almost always in this scenario there is no common language in which to start the relationship.  Lack of social connection (or even desire of social connection) also limits the “rights” that a customer might expect. The American customers are considered the “outgroup” which cannot assimilate because of “manners of different orders” (254). 

One restaurant we visited while in Shanghai was Pizza Hut. Shanghai does Pizza Hut fancy. In fact, we were told it was a great place to take your date.


Kuan-hsi explanation: Most servers spoke English, or had access to English speakers the second time around. They saw us coming and remembered us from the first undesirable encounter and called the manager who spoke English. I think there was a tiny bit of Kuan-Hsi connection here because we were treated well the second time once they understood our needs (and because it was a more American restaurant). 

Another place we visited was a Korean restaurant on campus. It was cafeteria style, so we weren’t expecting high-end service, but we were also not expecting to be ignored, to be brought the wrong drinks and wrong food, and to be yelled at in Chinese by the server. When I told her this was the wrong dish (I had ordered hot spicy noodles and was served cold spaghetti noodles tossed in sesame oil and covered in raw cabbage–all I could think of was “Worms. I’m eating worms.” My stomach lurched but I surprisingly did NOT barf). I signaled for the waitress–impertinent little thing–and told her I had the wrong order (by pointing to the dish I actually ordered on the menu). She, as previously mentioned, yelled at us in Chinese. I kept saying, “I don’t speak Chinese.” She yells some more. “Nope, I STILL don’t speak it. Even now.” When she couldn’t get the response she needed, she recruited a bunch of friends who also came over and yelled at us in Chinese. I thought there was about to be a West Side Story Rumble.


Kuan-hsi explanation: I don’t think there is any explanation. These people were just rude/crazy.Those kind of people are all over the world, man.

Now THIS was by far my favorite Shanghai food experience. In part, I’m sure, to its Western-style setting and service. Yes, we of course had Chinese servers, but most of them spoke English well enough to never mess our order up and to keep the good food/drinks coming. We were never treated rudely here.

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Kuan-hsi explanation:We were definitely the “in group” at this restaurant. We had returned many times and spent lots of money so I think that elevated our “Kuan-hsi” at the Blue Frog. The idea of “in-group” is linked to relatives, which of course we aren’t, but this is how they treated us. Since we dropped a lot of cash there every time we came, this makes sense.

So, I learned that in China, to have the best experience, you need to form relationships with proprietors. How do you go about this if you don’t live there? Chang and Holt explain it’s about moving from the “outgroup” (American foreigners) to the “ingroup” Chinese family. In order to achieve this “manner of different orders” it’s important to utilize whatever pull you have. In our case, we were treated a lot better when Dr. Wu was with us. I think that’s because the Chinese viewed her as connected in some way, perhaps as a sister-mother connection. When she accompanied us, we were able to experience a secondary sort of relationship (we were kind of like annoying in-laws who followed her around, not blood family, but family nonetheless). Chang and Holt explain “everyone has different standards. Some may claim that “one’s own people” are their relatives, first level relatives, second-level, and third-level relatives. Some people may include close friends as part of one’s own people. Some may claim that good friends are the priority. My definition of “one’s own people” includes direct relatives, sibling,s my good friends, and even those whom I respect because of their morality, trustworthiness” (257). In other words, fake it till you make it. It is also recommended that you can show association by work or school, or a friend-of-a-friend. It’s not preferred, but it works.

So if you ever get to Shanghai, I really recommend the Blue Frog. They don’t make you work for your kuan-hsi, and they make an awesome Aussie Burger!