Low on the EQ side: the New Philosophy of China

Written by Julen Madariaga on November 18th, 2009

51aVuMO1vSL._AA200_ There are some beliefs that, although not originally from China, were embraced so thoroughly by the Chinese that they became part of the local culture. One example is Buddhism, imported from India in ancient times. Another one, I have found out, is the teaching of the modern management gurus, imported from the USA.

It is interesting how analysts of China continue to explain all the  social phenomena with the Confucian tradition, when it seems to me that the Johnsonian and Golemanian thought must be at least as influential nowadays. Walk into any Chinese bookshop or check out the local pirate’s tricycle to see that self-improvement and cheese management titles rule supreme. The glossiest and most liquid books on the front table are the likes of: “Train yourself to start the next Google”, “How I changed myself from a complete idiot to a Fortune 500 CEO”, or “How I built a company that acquired the  company of the idiot in the previous book”.

Now, I have to warn you at this point: the titles mentioned may not be 100% exact, I am illiterate in the field of self-improvement. As a conceited, self-styled free-thinker I cannot help an almost classist repulsion towards those works, and I frown even on the  tricycle that sells them. During my years in the old Europe I happily managed to stay away from the rites of personal productiveness.  But ever since I moved to China, the new philosophy is lurking at every turn of phrase, and all resistance is in vain.

One of the concepts that appears most often in conversation is that of EQ, or emotional intelligence, coined by D.Goleman in his 1995 best-seller. After dozens of Chinese  spin-offs over the years, it has become an everyday expression here. It is not surprising that an idea like EQ should be so popular in the highly competitive Chinese system, where it provides some much needed comfort: don’t worry if you didn’t make it into a top Uni - the books say - because it’s not IQ but EQ that will determine your future. The pair IQ/EQ is also known in Chinese as 智商/情商,(zhishang/qingshang), although I find that the English abbreviation is more commonly used.

Whenever EQ comes up in conversation I like to point out that the concept is unscientific, especially in the loose form in which it is used here. But my wikipedic erudition always fails to impress the locals, and I have seen my EQ summarily analyzed in multiple occasions. The first time this happened to me was during a lunch with my colleague Jia, an otherwise bright engineer, in the first year of my stay in China. I can remember it almost vividly:

- Uln, your Chinese is getting pretty good.
- Thanks -  I ignored it. The comment is standard icebreaker in mandarin.
- You have a very good IQ -  he continued.
- Hm, thanks, you are also not bad.
- Yes, but.
- But? –

He looked me intently in the eye. It must have been the expression called “frank positive emphatic” in page 362 of the emotional book. When the look had been established, he proceeded:

- IQ is not good enough.
- No?
- No, you should watch your EQ.
- You mean, Ah Q, by Luxun?
- No, I mean E-Q.
- So who wrote that one?
- Nobody did.
- It’s  not a book?
- It is many books.
- Is it any good?
- Listen here. EQ is what explains why some people with lower IQ get further in life than others with higher IQ!
- You mean, like guanxi.
- No, like emotional intelligence.
- Ah, I thought…
- Guanxi is just a part of it. EQ is  about your skills to get on in life!
- I see.

But I didn’t see. That human relations and non-technical skills are essential in one’s career was one obvious thing, that I should check my parameters like a cranky old motor was quite a different one.

- Your IQ is Okay - he insisted -  but you should watch your EQ.
- Like what?
- Like there are open positions in HQ, that would be a good move for your career.
- What?
- A corporate level position is the way to leverage your expat experience .
- But I don’t want to live in Paris!
- You see, that is EQ.

I was beginning to feel a bit annoyed by the philosophy. I weathered another “empathic positive penetrative” while I plotted my counterattack.

- So, why don’t you apply to go to Paris yourself? – I said finally.
- What, me?
- Yes, of course, you have much more experience!
- But I am not an expat!
- So what, it’s not required.
- You know, Uln – he paused slightly - I have my children to take care of.
- There are family packages.
- She would never let me, my in-laws would kill me!
- Hah! –I said victorious - You should watch your EQ!
- But I already do!!

And this time he quickly looked away, forgetting the EQ looks, as if to hide some shameful thought. But too late, I had caught him already. It was my turn to pull the thread.

- Jia?
- Yes?
- You are pretty serious about this EQ, right?
- Er, I … do what I can.
- Building  good connections in the company is a good strategy, right?
- Er..  you might say that.
- Like having a friend in the HQ,  for example, right?
- Huh? No, no, of course I didn’t say that..I wouldn’t…
- Jia?
- Well?
- You have an excellent EQ, Jia, you know that?
- Oh, haha, no, no, thanks, you have an excellent IQ…

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Dec

    And this is the benign side of it. On the other side it is worrying to have friends ask me what I think about, for example, Scientology. I try in my best way to explain that I consider it to be crack-pot nonsense designed to fleece people of their money, but I’m not sure it got through . . .

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Dec

    Wow. I didn’t get anyone asking about scientology, actually I don’t even know how to say it, must be something like: 科学教?

    Any set of believes that you can put on a powerpoint and market them as career development stuff would work in China. I suppose scientologists are good at doing that, but arent they forbidden in China?… damn, it would be really sad for a Chinese to be conned by those sects and then on top of it to have to face punishment from the CPC.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Jan

    Sorry to resurrect this post and distract the from the more important google discussion. But do Europeans talk about EQ? I’ve known about the coleman book and heard second hand reports of people talking about emotional intelligence or emotional intelligence training, but I’ve never seen or heard it personally. Also, I can’t really think of any works of fiction where I’ve encountered it. This perspective is that of an American by the way. As a way of improving my chinese, I’ve been reading the best seller 杜拉拉升职级。Although it’s probably an exaggeration, it feel like the references to EQ are approaching a 100. It’s interesting to see where cultural differences are. Thanks for your other recent content by the way.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Feb

    Hi, I am glad you answer to this post. I find this phenomenon very interesting actually, and I was disappointed that nobody commented on it.

    To answer your question: I have lived in quite a few European countries and I have never even heard of EQ until I got to China. I always had the impression that Americans like that kind of stuff more than Europeans. They like more going to the psychologist, or doing self-help stuff or reading “How to be a real Leader”, etc. But then, that is only my impression and it is not very reliable, because most of my knowledge of American society comes from the internet and the cinema… I have only been there once :)

    Perhaps a true American might want to comment on this?

    Also, I think there is a question of timing. When I was back in Spain for Christmas I asked my mum about this and I was surprised to learn that she had heard of Coleman’s EQ. Apparently it did have some success at the time it came out, but it was never a permanent phenomenon like it seems to be in China. Here EQ (or qingshang) has become a normal word in everyday vocabulary!

    [Reply to this comment]

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