It’s a Culture Thing.

One of my colleagues awhile back noted that the biggest factor differentiating China and North America is immigration. My Chinese friends will often tell me they live in a multicultural society due to all the minority groups that live scattered across the country.

While there are sometimes large cultural differences between minority groups in China, I disagree that this puts my Chinese friends in a similar situation to the US or Canada, where over 90% of the people hail from ancestry tracing back to other parts of the world.

In order to have sanity in the US, we need to work hard on a daily basis to eliminate cultural favoritism in our laws and our society. American culture is in itself an oxymoron of sorts. Almost all of our culture and heritage hail from other parts of the world. New York Style pizza vs. Chicago Deep Dish? These both originate from Italy if you go back far enough. And going back doesn’t take long. Just three centuries ago there wasn’t much in America once you got a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic.

China has spent 5000 years developing an intricate, complex culture filled with minute details that everyone is expected to know. It’s much less forgiving than the US, where for the most part the culture is an amalgamation of every other country. Our general culture in business and politics is focused for the most part on eliminating cultural norms. When we negotiate, we do it on the table with paper and pen. Hash out the terms, do a SWOT analysis, discuss synergies and potential issues. Talk about a price for services rendered, have a bunch of lawyers look at the agreement terms and draw up a contract. We’re blunt and impersonal.

In China it’s much more important to understand the cultural complexities that surround you. The culture is such that I can lose face in a business meeting by simply failing to respond appropriately to a comment. A perfect example happened in Toronto a few months back. I was with my boss at a meeting between him and the head of a Chinese bank branch in Toronto. As we were heading down to the lobby in the elevator, I complemented the branch manager on having a very nice office. He immediately replied that the walls were too bare, the office too cold and undecorated. I told him it was unnecessary to have lots of decor in an office that had such a great view of downtown Toronto from every window. Everybody laughed and complemented me on my grasp of the culture and language. But had I said nothing, I would have left the bank branch manager with a sour taste in his mouth because I complemented him on his office, then he downplayed the complement by stating one of the office’s major weaknesses. Had I not responded with a reason for my initial complement that countered his self-criticism, my boss or somebody else would have either had to step in with something nice to say or they would have to apologize for the foreigner who didn’t understand.

This type of back-and-forth etiquette does not exist in the North American work place, unless you happen to be doing business with a Chinese owner who still adheres to those norms. You can get through these cultural differences and get things done, but it’s much harder to develop trust.

I’ve been studying this culture for two decades and spent around four years completely immersed in it, rarely speaking anything but Chinese. I am still learning. I will be for the rest of my life. But it’s a fun, interesting, sometimes horribly embarrassing challenge that I constantly learn from. And I am not just learning about Chinese culture. I’m learning about myself. I’m learning how to look at problems from multiple perspectives. I’m learning to understand what the real challenges are in a business transaction rather than what my own cultural background tells me.

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