Tag Archives: Chinese culture

Cultural Differences, Part One: Relationships East and West

Over the next few months, I’ll post a series of articles on the many cultural differences between Chinese speaking and English speaking people.

Eastern and Western cultural differences is a topic I deal with frequently in my training work. I just delivered a seminar entitled “Cultural Differences in Communication” to a group of Citibank managers last week, and will deliver a somewhat similar talk at the European Chamber of Commerce in a few weeks.

Today’s post deals with some of the differences in how relationships are formed and managed in greater China and the West. We’ll start with a question:

What is the primary basis of a deep friendship?

(a) Shared values and interests, i.e. “You and I think alike on several subjects, and we’re interested in the same things.”

(b) Mutual trust and loyalty, i.e. “I know you’ve got my back.”

(c) Shared identity, i.e. “We both work for X company” or “We’re in the same classes.”

(d) The potential for mutual benefit, i.e. “We can help each other out”or “We can take care of each other.”

If you answered (a), you probably grew up in a Western country such as the United States. You choose your friends based primarily on a shared set of values, on your ability to communicate with and relate to someone, and on shared interests in things like sports, movies, and music. Trust and loyalty (choice b) are important later in the relationship, if it progresses far enough to be considered a deep friendship.

People who answered (c) or (d) probably grew up in an East Asian country such as Taiwan.

Personal relationships in many East Asian countries are often formed for very pragmatic reasons. It is very common for people to work together to achieve a goal and help each other out as friends based primarily on the benefits they can provide to each other. Certainly, trust and loyalty are important dynamics in these relationships, just as they are in the West.

This does NOT mean that people in this part of the world won’t enter into friendships with another person because they like that person. It also does NOT mean that everyone is looking for an angle. It simply means that relationships here are often based on a sense mutual benefit or shared identity, far more than they are in the West. Some people have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” in their phone lists. These friends are often mentally categorized by what they are able to do for person who considers them friends, and by what the person who considers them friends is obligated to do for them.

In greater China, local people are often shocked to learn that foreigners who live here aren’t immediately friendly with other foreigners. “Aren’t you all foreigners?” they ask. It is unfathomable that such a shared identity doesn’t generate feelings of friendship.

A few more features of relationships in the East:

-Duty often trumps love. A Chinese person will be polite to an irascible uncle not because he likes him, but because it is his filial duty to put up with whatever the old curmudgeon dishes out. A person will help out a younger classmate or a junior member of her company because she has a responsibility to do so based on her higher status in the group.

-Friends may be called upon to help in ways that are quite inconvenient to them, and they are expected to offer assistance when it is asked for. Saying no is not really an option if you are a true friend. However, if your friend adheres to his own cultural mores, you will be richly rewarded for the effort you have made to help your friend. An organic accounting of favors granted is kept, and it is necessary to repay the giver of the favors with a reward that may surpass the value of the favor granted.

These two dynamics (duty and reciprocity) do come into play in Western countries, but not the extent that they do in the East. For example, in the United States, people are likely NOT to speak to a hypercritical, grumpy old uncle, and while people will try to grant their friends’ requests, they do not feel obligated to go far out of their way to deliver a favor.

Next Article: Communication Styles East and West

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Doing Business with the Chinese: Communication Breakdown

Many people ask me what it’s like to do business in greater China. One of my favorite songs from the classic rock era, “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin, comes immediately to mind.

I speak, read, and write fluent Mandarin Chinese. I conduct the daily business of life, as I have done for the past twenty years, largely surrounded by Chinese people.

And still, I often have to probe, prod, and read between thousands of lines in order to figure out what the hell is going on. You see, in greater China, speaking directly is NOT a virtue as it is back home.

Consider a recent discussion I had with a contract manufacturer (OEM factory) in Taiwan. I was there on behalf of a client, a food manufacturer. When I called the factory, on the recommendation of a distributor, they assured me up and down that they take all sorts of OEM work from companies both domestic and overseas.

Here’s a condensed version of the conversation I had with the boss (he had an assistant at his side the whole time), translated from Mandarin into English:

Boss: (Examining my client’s product). “We can make this.”

Me: “Good. So you already have the necessary equipment in your factory?”

Boss: “We’ll need to study this a while before we can start producing it.”

Me: “Of course. So, you have the equipment and can do it then?”

Boss: (Munching on one of the samples I brought) “This doesn’t taste very good. Too hard. Try one of ours.” (Hands me a few samples of his product.)

Me: (Politely trying a few of his samples). “Yes, it tastes very good. Of course, my client will want you to recreate his product from a formula. He’ll want you to develop a product that is very similar in look, texture, and taste to the product his produces at his home factory.”

Boss: “Your product doesn’t taste very good. Consumers in Taiwan and China won’t like it.”

Me: “Thank you for your kind advice. So, are you interested in producing this product? Will you work up a quotation for me on X kg?”

Boss:“It would take a long time to get this right before we could start producing it.”

Me: “I know. I have experience with making other food products. We’ll go for as close a match as we can get. If it takes a few weeks or even a few months, that’s okay. So, are you interested in producing this product?”

Boss: “Can you just put our products into your packaging? That would be easier.”

Me: “I’m afraid not. The client wants to sell his product, not someone else’s product. Mr. X, forgive me, I’m an American and we tend to speak directly. Will you tell me if you are interested in working with my client?”

Boss: “I don’t know. Making your product wouldn’t be very convenient.”

Me: “Thank you for your time.”

This really happened. It has happened many times in my years in greater China. Do you see the vast differences in the way a Westerner might communicate and the way a Chinese person communicates? In China, a boss won’t say “no,” even if his life depends on it. He trains his people to tell all prospects that his factory can make anything and everything, on the off chance that either he can make it, or his friend/brother/old high school classmate can make it and he gets his cut of the deal. He won’t answer questions directly unless pressed, and even then, he won’t like it. He also very often won’t understand that you want him to do some work for you in the way you want it done, not the way he wants it done. He’ll tell you “yes” at the beginning of the conversation and then, two hours later, you’ll learn that it’s actually a “no.” And here’s the kicker–behaving and communicating this way is not only acceptable, but proper, a virtue even. Chalk it up to cultural differences, my friends.

I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out the truth in a relatively short period of time, but I haven’t ever figured out a way to get a factory owner to speak plainly and directly. It just isn’t done here. So I continue to probe and read between the lines, and accept that this is the way it is done with 98% of the people I do business with in greater China.

Now, can you imagine dealing with a situation like this without knowing anything about Chinese culture?

The Bottom Line: You won’t get very far, operating in greater China, unless you are personally prepared to deal with communication challenges like these, or you are able to hire someone who knows local culture to deal with them for you. China and the West are a universe apart, culturally. That isn’t a gap that is easily bridged. (But it is an endless source of fascination for a few of us nutjobs!)

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The Bamboo Plant on My Desk

About two months ago, my wife returned from an afternoon of shopping with a present for me.

It was a small bamboo plant for my office.

She watered it once, then left it to me to water.

I got involved in a busy week and let the plant’s base get a bit dry.

My wife found out and told me, with a great deal of concern in her voice, that Chinese people believe that bamboo plants bring good fortune in business, and that I should never let my bamboo plant get thirsty.

She said, to be exact “Letting a bamboo plant die is a very bad thing to a Chinese person.”

I water that plant with great diligence now and, you know what? Business is good.

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Culture Shock: American Managers in China

I found this well-written, concise article in the Salt Lake Tribune that highlights some of the cultural adaptation problems American managers who work in China encounter.

From the article:

The issue…is that the Chinese culture is so different from what Americans have experienced in life and in the workplace.

When people ask me if there are major cultural differences between Greater China and the United States, I usually reply with this: “They are two entirely different worlds. Humans need to eat, sleep, and work, but the similarities end there.” Managers heading for China would do well do keep a very open mind, and to avoid any major policy decisions until they get the lay of the land. They should also consider hiring a cross-cultural communications trainer with experience in Greater China to guide them through the mine fields.

This article is full of other gems that provide a brief overview of some of the major cultural differences between China and the West. I’d love to go through them but, as usual, I’m in the middle of 18 projects.

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Doing Business in Greater China: What do Foreign Businesspeople Expect?

Earlier this year I taught a seminar to a group of Taiwanese executives. The trainees were an excellent group, full of energy and ideas. During the Q & A session, one of the attendees asked “What do foreign businesspeople expect from their local suppliers and customers?”

Wow, what an excellent question.

My answer? “If they are sourcing, they expect to find what they need at a price lower than they would have to pay at home and at the same or better quality. If they are on a sales trip, they hope to figure out the local distribution system and see if they can make a profit selling locally.

But that wasn’t the most important thing the audience needed to know. I added something.

I told them that they need to educate their clients and customers, to help them understand how business is done locally, because there are such vast differences between West and East. I told them they should do this honestly, without selfish concern for their own position, but with the aim of creating a relationship that is beneficial to both sides (and no, nobody smirked–this was a great group of people who understand long-term partnerships). One example I gave was the current trend in the Taiwan consumer market toward unique and elegant packaging for products priced in the NT$100-200 range (about US$3-6). Many foreign businesspeople cannot understand how a finely packaged product could sell for US$10 in their home market, but must be priced at half of that in Taiwan, Hong Kong or China. They don’t understand that many white collar workers in these countries have only US$100-300 a month in disposable income (after housing, utilities, car, medical, and educational expenses) and so will travel an extra four bus stops to find something priced only US$0.50 cheaper at another store.

As far as sourcing goes, there are some honest suppliers out there who have chosen a long-term, relationship-building strategy over a short-term, screw the customer strategy, but they are still in the minority in China, less so in Hong Kong and Taiwan. That is why a company doing business in Greater China needs to do its research and have a number of checks and balances in place. Sourcing in Greater China can be a huge boon to a business, and can also be a minefield that results in lost limbs and profit. Plan on spending weeks overseas just to get all of the details worked out. Multiple trips, help from consultants, constant quality checks are a necessity for a prudent businessperson, but if you can get a steady supply of finished goods at half the price you’re paying now, it is well worth the effort.

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Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends…

Out in my neck of the woods, it is not uncommon to hear a businessperson from a Western country, following a disappointing episode with a Chinese supplier, say something like: “They’re all a bunch of liars!”  Of course, they’re not all bad. Part of the problem is very different definitions of what constitutes ethical and honest behavior between the Chinese and the Western world (Note: I’d include the Japanese in the group of people who don’t understand Chinese “lying”).

In short, for most Chinese people, lying is not really lying. What we in the West would consider to be a bald-faced lie, a person in greater China might think of as a courtesy, a convenience, or a smart tactic, none of which are immoral. In fact, lying to achieve some business or social aim, and getting away with it, is considered to be a sign of intelligence and social skill among many Chinese.

Chinese values are rooted in concepts of duty to oneself, one’s family, one’s company, one’s friends and associates, but not to anyone else. There is no “Good Samaritan” ethic going on; kids are not really taught from a young age that they have a duty to help strangers. The teaching is more along the lines of “don’t make trouble,” “don’t do anything shameful,” or “be a good student.”

Also worth noting is the fact that many more things are covered up by the Chinese than they would be in the West. People don’t tell each other about things that would make someone lose face or cause social embarrassment, and once the “deception” is discovered, all is generally forgiven after a brief explanation along the lines of “it wasn’t convenient for me to tell you the truth.” Things like job loss, serious illness, legal trouble, or problems with children are seldom talked about, and often kept hidden, even among close friends and relatives.

In a business context, you might not hear about a shipment that was supposed to go out last week but will now likely never go out until it is too late. This occurs with great frequency in greater China, and there is very little concern or shame on the Chinese end, because it simply isn’t viewed as being wrong.

For the unprepared Western businessperson, these ethics can be quite unnerving. I’ve personally seen many a business deal, and many a friendship, fall apart because of these radically different values.

The Bottom Line: Don’t expect your Chinese suppliers to have the same set of ethics that you have. There are differences across the board in what constitutes ethical behavior when you’re talking about East and West. Tread carefully, and set up plenty of checks and balances until you really know what you are doing.

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Hakka Dreams

Some years ago at a popular restaurant in Xinzhu in the north of Taiwan, I joined a gathering of twelve business owners, all local Rotarians, for a feast featuring the local Hakka fare. Shortly after the first bottle of whiskey was opened, the backslapping and the joshing began. “True, this is Mr. Gao. We call him “Hotel”. He’s the richest man in our Rotary Club.”Mr. Gao replied: “Nonsense! Chemical, you are the richest man in Rotary, and you know it!”

Over the course of the meal, the sequence repeated itself several times. By the end of the evening, it became clear that Car, Bank, Manpower, DM, Medicine, and Well—each man nicknamed according to his industry or, in the case of Well, legendary drinking ability—were all wealthy yet unwilling to admit it too openly.

What I also remember about that evening, and dozens of similar evenings over the years, are the frequent observations made by these Hakka businessmen about their cultural identity. Things like: “We all came from farms up in the mountains. Our parents had to go to the river and catch a fish if we wanted to eat meat” or “Hakka people are careful with their money,” or “We Hakkas tend to be more conservative than your average Taiwanese.” One the most memorable of these remarks came from a Hakka businessman who often trades with the Japanese. He told me: “A Taiwanese Hakka businessman can best three typical Taiwanese businessmen, and a typical Taiwanese businessman can best three Japanese businessmen. These poor Japanese don’t stand a chance!”

Ask a non-Hakka Taiwanese to describe Hakkas, and he’ll often cluck his tongue and say something like “Hakkas can be really generous, but only when they need something from you,” or “Hakka people tend to be very clannish,” or “Hakkas are really tight with a dollar.”

Some 15% of Taiwan’s population is Hakka. The Mandarin word for Hakka is 客家人 (kèjiārén), or “guest person”, though this appellation is fairly recent. It describes the traditionally migratory nature of the Hakka people, who originated in northern China around 2,700 years ago. After a series of resettlements aimed at escaping war and social unrest, most Hakkas settled in southern China, with large concentrations in Guangdong and southwestern Fujian Province. It was from these southern outposts that Taiwanese Hakkas departed in their last migration southward, across the Taiwan Strait.

Today, there are four major concentrations of Hakka people in Taiwan. Most people in Taiwan recognize the corridor stretching from Taoyuan to Miaoli County as the location of most of the Hakka population in Taiwan. About 50% of Zhongli City, and 80% of the residents of Taoyuan, Xinzhu, and Miaoli Counties are ethnically Hakka.

The settlement pattern of these areas has much to do with the earlier arrival in Taiwan of Hoklo immigrants from Fujian Province, starting from the period of Dutch occupation in the mid-17th century. By the time most Hakkas arrived in Taiwan, the most fertile of Taiwan’s farmland, particularly in the south, was already occupied by larger populations of well-established Hoklo people. The only option left for most Hakkas was the hills and mountains of northern and central Taiwan.

A number of my Hakka friends have narrated oral histories of long-ago battles between Hoklo and Hakka peoples, explaining that the Hakka preference for mountain and hill living was really the result of having been pushed, by force, out of the lowlands. Ironically, as the Hakkas moved further inland, they in turn displaced, and sometimes assimilated, the aboriginal peoples living the mountain areas they settled in.

There are also significant populations of Hakka peoples in Taidong and Hualian Counties. Most of the Hakka immigrants who settled there arrived too late to settle in the hills of north-central Taiwan, traveling to the East coast looking for other lands to settle.

In Pingdong County’s Liugui and Meinong, there are also high concentrations of Hakka people. These were among the first Hakkas in Taiwan, having arrived as soldiers with Koxinga in 1661.

Finally, there are large groups of ethnically Hakka Taiwanese in the Dongshi area in Taichung County, as well as in surrounding towns and villages.

Politically, Hakkas are known for their support of the nationalist (KMT) party in Taiwan. Most Hakkas will proudly tell you that Sun Yat Sen and Lee Teng-hui are part of a long list of prominent Hakka politicians, and many of today’s politicians, from both sides of the political fence, claim Hakka ethnicity.

In researching this article, I kept coming back to a fundamental question about Hakkas. That is, do they define themselves as Taiwanese or as Hakka? Certainly, there are distinctive cultural characteristics—preferred foods, religious practices, architectural styles, language dialects, social customs, etc.—that are identified with Hakka peoples. When I asked my Hakka friends this question, they invariably told me that they considered themselves both Taiwanese and Hakka. Perhaps one of them explained it best when he said: “I think of myself as Taiwanese, but I’m Hakka first. I grew up speaking Hakka, follow Hakka customs, and tend to think more like a Hakka than a typical Hoklo Taiwanese.”

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