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Keeping Up On Chinese Culture

October 1, 1996
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Let’s say you’re in Shanghai on business. You’re walking down the street and you pass a Chinese colleague. He asks, "Have you eaten yet?" Your answer, "No, not yet," sends him rushing off looking embarrassed and uncomfortable.

Would you have anticipated that reaction? Probably not. It becomes crystal clear when you understand that "Have you eaten yet?" is a common greeting—just like the expression, "Hi, how are you?" is in the United States. It’s the Chinese way of saying "Is your belly full today?" or "Is life treating you well?" The usual response would be something like: "Oh yes, I’ve just had something. Thanks."

Clearly, not knowing this puts you at a disadvantage. And as American businesses are discovering that the world is their marketplace, they’re also learning that these types of cultural misunderstandings are something they can’t afford. This is true whether your employees are conducting negotiations abroad or your foreign colleagues are traveling to the States. It even applies when you’re communicating internationally by phone, fax or e-mail.

Fortunately, this issue can be handled through training. Learning how things work in China—negotiating styles, the roles of men and women, dining customs and nonverbal behaviors—may not make us experts in Chinese culture, but it raises our awareness of our differences and prepares us for handling some of them.

China and it’s neighbors.
One of the things you have to be careful of is assuming if you know something about the culture of one country, that the same characteristics hold true for its neighbors. Often you’ll find general similarities among the cultures of a region, and it’s useful to note them. But recognizing the specific differences among the cultures is equally important. This is absolutely the case with China and surrounding Asian nations.

From a broad perspective, both Koreans and Chinese subscribe to a philosophy which dictates that one should be humble. "The issue of humility will affect how they greet you for the first time, how you exchange business cards, how you address each other very formally and how you bow with each other," Dean Foster, director of the cross-cultural training division of Princeton, New Jersey-based Berlitz International Inc., explains. "They both share that—whereas Americans don’t have any notion of humility."

On the other hand, Foster cites an example from his own experience of one key difference: "Very often [Chinese banquets] start with a little, sweet, dumpling kind of appetizer. And then you move through the meal and the final dish is a rich-tasting soup. We were having this and one of the Korean fellows sitting there was just struck by the Chinese banquet and how different it was from how they dined in Korea. And he said, ‘Look at this: in China we start with dessert and we end with soup!’ This, of course, would be the kind of observation you’d expect from an American."

Another interesting difference between China and some other Asian countries is that in China women are accepted in the higher levels of business. "[American women in management] are not a problem for China," Foster says, "because during the 40 years of communism, Chinese women did have access to fairly high levels of authority—not necessarily in the government only but even in the private sector. But I’m speaking only of China now. It would not be the same in Korea."

Chinese communication styles.
Communication can be difficult between two Americans who’ve known each other for years—especially during high-pressure negotiations. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when cultural differences are thrown in, the situation becomes quite a bit more complicated. But it should help to know a few things about how Chinese approach business discussions.

Keep in mind that Chinese often use an indirect form of communication, even in response to a direct question. This can be frustrating to Americans, who tend to prefer the opposite approach. Foster says: "They may or may not be attempting to be evasive. They may be unsure about what they want to say. They may be stalling for time. Or the person you’re talking with may not have authority and doesn’t want to venture an answer."

Also, don’t let it throw you if the people you talked with in the first meeting aren’t there for the second meeting—or if the people from the second meeting aren’t there for the third. What may look to you like a problem is actually a positive sign. It probably means you’re advancing through the hierarchy. The trouble is you may not know how high up the decision maker is. So the trick is to start as high as you can—but to do this requires a contact to arrange the first meeting.

Although there are more than 30 languages spoken in mainland China, two of them function as the primary languages of business: Mandarin and Cantonese. And while it’s always helpful to speak the language of the country you’re doing business with, these are difficult languages for westerners to master. So as a show of respect, it’s certainly advisable that your employees learn enough to be social on a basic level, but you shouldn’t worry about their fluency unless they’ll be making a long-term commitment to China.

If your employees don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese well enough to conduct business discussions, then you should provide them with a translator—since outside a few areas like Hong Kong, Chinese are unlikely to be fluent in English. And Foster advises: "If you’re working with translators, it’s important in China to bring your own. If you rely on theirs, you’ll only get half the story. You’ll get the story they want you to hear."

From the U.S. point of view.
No matter how you look at it, China’s culture is extremely different from the States’. "China is geographically, metaphorically, historically and in every possible way, halfway around the world," Foster says. "The Chinese talk from a very different point of view in terms of how they see the world and their expectations of human relationships. And these expectations are reflected in management styles and in the way we work with each other. One of the key problems that Americans and Chinese have had has been the Chinese expectation that any relationship is a personal relationship. And the American expectation is that it’s nothing personal, just business."

Another fundamental difference lies in how Americans and Chinese respond to the concept of proprietary rights. Foster explains: "The Chinese really don’t understand how an individual can own the rights to an idea—it’s just culturally not part of their history. In China, you have to share ideas—they can’t be owned. The entire group has to benefit from the idea." This, of course, is a difficult concept for Americans to grasp. Asking Chinese to pay someone for an idea is like asking Americans to pay for air.

So once you’ve organized some cross-cultural training, should you ask your employees to act Chinese when in China—and expect your Chinese colleagues to act American when in the States? It’s not likely that would work very well. "Cross-cultural training programs aren’t designed to make you Brazilian or Chinese—but they are designed to get you to see that the Brazilians and the Chinese may view business and the world a little bit differently," Foster says.

What you can do is encourage your employees to be Americans with a sensitivity for how their behavior will be interpreted by others. And if they can modify a few of the things they might have wanted to do without thinking, then they’re sure to have a more successful experience in working with their global peers.

Global Workforce, October 1996, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 16-17.

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