China Cultural Awareness Simplified: Don’t be an Asshole

We have often written how cultural awareness is an overrated skill for doing business in China, but never quite so bluntly as China business lawyer Stan Abrams does over at China Hearsay, in his post, entitled, Cultural Awareness [link no longer exists]:

OK, I’m probably going to really piss off AmCham after posting this, but screw it. I received an announcement yesterday for the following workshop:

Cultural Intelligence: Working Effectively in a Multicultural Environment

This workshop aims to improve the cultural intelligence of employees in multicultural work environments. In order to operate effectively in the workplace, it is essential that all employees are able to anticipate potential conflicts and have the skills to address issues which may arise due to cultural misunderstandings.

This kind of thing has traditionally annoyed me ever since I got to university in the late 80s and was forced, along with the rest of the student body, to undergo “sensitivity training.” I am aware that there are folks who make a living giving this kind of advice to multinationals, and I don’t want to deprive anyone of their livelihood.

Stan sees it all as a “big scam”:

I think it’s all a big scam. I do not consider myself an expert on multicultural issues, but in my experience here since ’99, practically all disputes I’ve seen between foreigners and locals can be avoided by giving people the following advice when they are hired, “Don’t be an asshole.” Simple, yet effective.

I think China is a much easier country than many others for your typical expat to deal with. There are not a lot of cultural hoops to jump through, and people here are exceptionally forgiving if someone makes a faux pas. Compared to the Middle East or other parts of Asia, China does not really present a huge challenge. As long as you’re not an asshole to your co-workers, that is.

Are there exceptions? Sure. Foreigners should avoid use of euphemisms and culturally-specific references, although I think people should be smart enough to figure that out on their own. My old boss liked to allude to old TV shows and U.S. history, most of which references the staff didn’t get. That’s not a good practice, but it was a benign habit that certainly didn’t piss anyone off.

He concludes by saying he will not be attending.

Stan is 84% right. The key to cultural sensitivity can almost always be boiled down to not being an asshole.

I have been handling international law matters for more than 20 years, involving countries I know well, some I know fairly well, and some I barely know at all. I am sure I have made many faux pas during that time, including right here in the United States. But, I have never come remotely close to causing a deal to go South. I can confidently state the same thing of the rest of the international lawyers at my law firm.

I would love to hear from people aware of a deal that failed due to an inadvertent cultural mistake NOT relating to someone being an asshole, as that word is defined in all cultures.


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