China: When Cultural Differences Matter.

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.

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