By Klaus Schmitt
At a recent training event for the China operations of a German company, the Chinese participants complained that their German management tend to speak too directly in pointing out mistakes. The Chinese participants told me: This breaks up the perceived harmony with their Chinese managers. I recommended to them next time to bear in mind that their German counterparts did not intend the criticism to be a personal offense, as they only wanted to point out the need for a correction in the activity.
In this context, Germans often can have arguments in the office, and still can go out for a drink together and everything is in harmony again. In China a lot of people would rather leave their job than argue.
Later on the participants seemed so be much clearer with their superior’s intentions and more willing to accept direct talk. Ultimately, they faced a key cultural difference:
Western education and culture emphasize the value of speaking the truth, voicing opinions. In contrast, Chinese culture stresses harmony, consensus, and the use of “softeners” in their language.
The most sensitive moments for cultural differences come up when basic attitudes are taken for granted by culture but not shared with another one. If these cultural differences are ignored, some business deals might fail because one side could violate the unwritten cultural rules of conduct.
If we look at the rankings of some of the “cultural dimensions” (e.g. communication context, matrix of relationship, power distance, individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, sense of time) we actually see various parameters lying mostly on the opposite sides between China and some Western countries like the US or Germany.
Based on my experience, some other striking cultural differences between Chinese and Westerners are:
In Western business it’s important to use facts, data and expertise to show your professionalism. However in China you first have to build up a personal network of trust and informal relations before negotiating.
Blending of Work and Leisure Time (China) <> Separation of Work and Leisure Time (West)
In China the boundary between work and private life is not very clear. We have all heard stories of expats in China who have difficulties maintaining boundaries between private life and their business time. Most Chinese seem to be available by cell phone 24/7 both for business affairs and private matter.
Group Orientation (China) <> Individualism (West)
The concept of giving and saving face combined with a strong group orientation can be a very delicate matter in China. Here’s one simple example I encountered a few weeks ago. At a seminar in Shanghai I had lunch with the Chinese participants and the Western trainer. There were quite a lot of people and we sat at different tables. After having finished my meal, coming from a quite individual cultural background, I wanted to leave early for a walk outside on my own. I expressed this to my Chinese colleagues. All of the sudden they told me that this should not be done because the trainer hadn’t finished his lunch yet. If I had left earlier I would have taken “face” off him. Moreover, I would have offended the unwritten rules of the group.
Spontaneity (China) <> Planning (West)
In China a lot of issues can be managed effectively by practicing some creativity, flexibility and patience. The Chinese are better able to surrender to the situation with a lot of serenity due to their history and geographical conditions.
A simple path for cross-cultural success in China...
Stay flexible and calm, plan some buffer time, and smile. This is already half-way to cross-cultural success!
You succeed in life by smiling, or not at all!
- Chinese Proverb
Senior Consultant, Crescendo Communications Consulting