There was a fantastic 3-part post on the China Law blog the other week. A new contributor, Jason Patent, gave advice based on the idea that knowing the Chinese culture is a huge help to anyone doing business here. All three posts were very well written and worthy of a careful read.
I’m going to go through the general idea of each post, with some of my own thoughts and a few quotes. If you find it interesting, do go and read Jason’s original posts.
In Part I, Jason shared a story in which an experienced businessman who had done his research blew a great opportunity in China through a lack of cultural preparation.
This is an important topic for anyone planning to do business in China, whether directly or through an intermediary. Things are DIFFERENT. Whoever is on the ground needs to be culturally aware, and whoever is managing them needs to leave space for the differences culture brings.
If you are using an intermediary for your China dealings, try to listen to their explanations of situations that come up – don’t expect it to fit in the box of business in your own culture. If you can accept that the Chinese way is not “wrong,” but simply different, it will help you be more relaxed and, in the long run, effective.
I particularly enjoyed this quote from the summing up at the end of the post:
Business is not just business, despite our American insistence to the contrary. The only way to succeed in China is with the curiosity to examine our own beliefs and practices, and the humility to see other ways of doing things as equally valid. And the good sense to spend a bit of time and money now to save, and make, much more down the line.
Part II focused on ethics, and in particular, the perception that Chinese are less ethical in business than westerners.
A favorite critique by Westerners of China is that “the Chinese are unethical.” It is claimed that Chinese deceive, don’t stick to contracts, deliberately cheat. While few would deny that China can be a frustrating place for Westerners to do business, and while unethical behavior certainly occurs in China, claims of unethical behavior are often exaggerated, and result from Westerners’ own failure to understand the different background assumptions held by the Chinese.
Jason includes a chart which compares some of the values emphasized in China/the West, and the implications of these mismatches to business. For example, we may see a person’s behavior and, misunderstanding the intention of this behavior, assume they are trying to cheat us in some way.
The rub is that we have no access to anyone else’s intentions. All we have to go on is behavior. We observe a behavior, and attribute an intention, whether it’s accurate or not. The result: we make a lot of mistakes, often assuming evil intent where intent was either good or, at worst, indifferent. Whether we like it or not, we are wired to judge those around us based only on their behaviors, while at the same time judging ourselves based mostly on our intentions. That’s a cold, hard reality — but a good one to know about.
I really enjoyed reading this discussion. As Jason himself says, it’s not new information, but it is very important to business (and life) in a cross-cultural environment. I know that, personally speaking, understanding that behavior which frustrates me may have a different intention than I would naturally ascribe to it helps me be more at peace.
Giving others the benefit of the doubt (assuming their intentions are good) and then trying to clarify the situation with careful, calm questions helps greatly. This is not just in dealing with suppliers or customers (external parties) but even within your own company. There have been several occasions in Imports Oriental where misunderstood intentions have created unnecessary tension – tension which dissolved almost immediately once there was clarification.
Part III focused on stereotypes that we carry, and how they affect our perspective. Jason lists 9 stereotypes many Westerners carry into business dealings in China.
1. The Chinese are out to cheat me.2. The Chinese think they’re superior.3. The Chinese lie.4. The Chinese go back on their word.5. The Chinese are always stalling for time.6. The Chinese are stingy.7. The Chinese don’t care about quality.8. The Chinese don’t care about their environment.9. The Chinese hate Westerners.
Jason goes through each of the 9 and gives perspective on each – how these stereotypes can come about and explaining a bit of what can be behind them. There are unethical people in every culture, but labeling all Chinese as dishonest or liars is not the solution. I’ll end with a quote from Jason’s summary:
Categories can be useful. Reasoned, informed judgment can be useful. Stereotypes have zero business value. Get savvy about your own stereotypes and re-frame them. Not only will you feel better and get along better, but your business will do better.