China Business

China: When Cultural Differences Matter.

China work culture

Regular readers know we are not big fans of going overboard on the need to know Chinese culture to do the typical China business deal. Better to be a good businessperson than to know what color flowers to bring to a funeral.

But, in other contexts, like managing an enterprise, or selling consumer products, culture can be more important and a recent Wall Street Journal article, entitled, Lenovo Goes Global, but Not Without Strife highlights this.

The article is about Lenovo, but it is really about how cultural differences between the West and China can impact the workings of a business. No doubt, anyone who has done much East-West business will be able to relate to at least some of the following:

  • “You don’t want everyone saying ‘Yes, Yes, Yes’ all the time,” says Mr. Amelio, a brawny former college wrestler. “You want them to be able to smack you upside the head and say ‘Hey, I’ve got a better idea.'”
  • Conference calls were difficult as Americans hogged the airtime. “The Americans would just talk and talk,” says Qiao Jian, a vice president of human resources. “Then they’d say ‘How come you don’t want to add value to this meeting?'”
  • Bridging the East-West divide also has included smaller efforts. Silkworms have been taken off the menu in the Beijing cafeteria. Sports metaphors, which were a source of confusion, have been banned from conference calls.
  • Confusion over the meaning of silence was another problem. “When we disagreed in meetings, we would keep silent,” says Chen Shaopeng, president of Lenovo’s China operations. “But the Americans assumed we were agreeing.”

I would love to get comments setting out additional examples of instances where cultural differences intruded on “getting things done.”

UPDATE: Blake Keller, over at the China Business and Travel Blog, just did a post, Mei Wenti, on how in China, “yes,” “okay” and “uh huh” do not really mean “yes.” They mean, “I hear you.” Blake, I hear you on that.

11 responses to “China: When Cultural Differences Matter.”

  1. I can certainly imagine sports metaphors or silly American business lingo being a problem. I recently realized that perhaps I could use this sort of language to secretly communicate with other Americans in the presence of English-speaking Chinese.

  2. Just to add, I think it can be more efficient for companies, rather than spending ridiculous sums of money to train Chinese people in English, to train native speakers of English how to communicate in a more simple form of English, as mentioned in the article. That means, being able to recognize which idiomatic language won’t be understood, speaking slower and clearer…etc.
    For example, “So, can we go ahead and get the ball rolling on the project by Thursday?” could be changed to “On Thursday, please start working on the project. Ok?”.
    This type of training can take a day or two for native speakers, which is a bargain compared to the years and years it can take an intermediate learner of a foreign language to reach more advanced stages of fluency.
    I also think a lot of “cultural” problems actually are just problems of dealing with people. Reading old classics like “How to Win Friends and Influence People” are still valuable, for any cultural context, in my opinion.

  3. Hi Dan,
    Your point about being a good businessperson is valid, but what does it mean to be a good businessperson in China?
    Jack Perkowski’s experience suggests that it doesn’t mean having to go so deep as learning Chinese to be successful. But his experience also suggests serious immersion – to the likes of touring 100 factories in 40 cities to understand where to best invest. Even then, he had serious losses initially.
    You might say, one does that to find a good factory, not to overcome the fear of eating deer penis.
    But on this most superficial cultural level, doesn’t the latter lead to the former through a bridge of human understanding?
    I was just reading over a list of pros and cons of business schools in China. Many of the cons include the fact that these schools – which clearly teach how to be a businessperson – fall way short in teaching how to be an entrepreneur.
    So how do people actually do this? They crawl through the cracks of life, and find out how to make money on their own. If you’re crawling through China on your own, you had better understand this place on a level that’s much deeper than doing a simple calculation to balance the books.
    Granted, for a lot of people, accounting isn’t simple. For a whole lot more, neither is crossing an ocean to meet your would-be destiny. Hope you’ve brought more than a paddle and a calculating mind.

  4. A big difference is in the use of the word “yes”. There is no word for “yes” in Chinese. They have “hao” for ‘good’. “Shi” or “Shi de” for ‘is’. And “Dui” for ‘correct’. So when we ask a question and hear ‘correct’, that is very different than ‘yes’.
    This is especially true when we ask a question in the negative. I.E. “so you are not going to ship tomorrow?”. We expect the answer to be “no” as in “no I am not shipping tomorrow”. However, the answerer is agreeing so in their head they think “Dui” (correct) but say ‘yes’. Because ‘yes’ is an acceptable translation of ‘dui’.
    So we hear ‘yes, i am shipping tomorrow’ when they meant ‘correct, i am not shipping tomorrow’.
    Never never never ask a question in the negative in China……

  5. Connected a bit to Yokie’s post is the Chinese complete avoidance of saying the word no. “we don’t think that will be possible” means that its impossible to Chinese, but foreigners take that very differently. The other thing is about work expectations and, especially lunch hours, though that is slowly going away, it was definitely an issue years ago.

  6. An old Chinese friend, who worked in the US for Microsoft, once told me that even though he spoke fluent English, whenever his American colleagues made reference to certain aspects of American culture he often felt confused and out of the loop. When I started my current position in Beijing I immediately understood where he was coming from.
    I completely agree with you that a good businessperson does not necessarily need to understand culture to get the job done. However, I do feel that within an organization all team members should be conscious of one another’s cultural backgrounds and adjust their actions accordingly. Excellent post Dan.

  7. I fundamentally differ with you on this one, Dan.
    My experience has been that lack of cultural understanding results in higher costs, longer delays, and especially missed opportunities. As a Mandarin speaker many doors have opened for me that would not have opened for others.
    I view both business skill and cultural skill as necessary preconditions for success in China.
    Bill, your point about making English easier for non-native speakers is excellent.
    Oh, and white flowers for a funeral.

  8. From what Dan quoted, all sounds good except: why take silkworms off the menu? I am at work at don’t have time to slack off and read the whole article, but if Chinese people like silkworms, leave em on the menu. Would Americans really be that bothered by seeing them, it’s not like they’d have to eat them?
    I wish I could lock this cubicle, then I could read CLB more thoroughly, sigh. We can put a man on the moon but not a door on a cubicle?

  9. For what its worth, I’m doing a dissertation about the inverse of this problem, when east asian workers have difficulty advancing in western companies because of these differences. Once you start talking to people about it you find out how often these kinds of things happen.

  10. O..and if the chinese person is smiling profusely at you while being silent, they are probably not agreeing with you.
    And I love those smirks they do when talking to women..especially chinese woman.
    Please secret language, we know your lingo.
    Best to everyone, the culture is about respect, but when engaging a chinese person for business, it’s hard to differentiate where respect begins, unless you have already done a favor for the chinese person.

  11. I think its vital to remember that business with the Chinese is an opportunity for mutual exchange.
    The Chinese are not hindered by a fear of taking advantage of a friend or owing a favor, in fact it often drives the business relationship as well as the friendship. This can become a hindrance as well but the key is guan xi (relationship).
    So while you will never become Chinese and it may be an insult to go overboard, cultural understanding is a great business decision. Maybe the best.

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