Adage #12 – Culture is NOT Something Found in a Petri Dish


Let’s face it, USA and China think differently.  Neither is better, they’re just different mindsets from completely different environments growing up.  I think the best example that illustrates this is when President Nixon became the first President to visit China.  When speaking with Chairman Mao Zedong, he asked him, “What effect did the French Revolution have on your country?”.  The Chairman simply replied, “It’s too early to tell”.  If you want to be successful in China, you HAVE to understand this.

American’s think in quarters (1st, 2nd, 4th, etc) while Chinese think in decades.  Due to their culture, change is slow and methodical.  I’ve spoken with some of my colleagues in China who are amazed with CEO’s get hired and booted within 12 months.  How can they determine that quickly if someone is good, bad or indifferent?  How can major initiatives be implemented and measured in such a small accountable timeframe?  It seems maddening.  The summary usually ends up with “immediate gratification of USA” versus the patience culture of China.  USA thinks “I”, China thinks “We”.

Being cognizant of these differences allows you to be one step up in the eyes of the people you work with in China.  Respect and acknowledge their culture.  When you arrive at their factory or office, bring gifts, little tokens of your building relationship.  Being from Minnesota, I usually bring our states wild long rice or honey wrapped in a nice package.  I can’t tell you how much a difference this has made over the years.  When it comes to working, don’t push it.  Lunch and dinner to Chinese means large, long events to get to know each other better.  A ham sammich to go is not an option.  When they invite you, accept with gratification – you are being honored.  When you receive their business card (name card) accept it with both hands and study the front and back.  It is rude not to look and see the details.  I could go on for hours explaining all the other intricacies – but these will get you pretty far to start.

Side note, one of the most fun things I like to talk to Chinese about are their Western names.  How did they get or choose them?  They get them from their father, their grade school teachers or choose themselves.  Imagine being in 1st grade and the teacher opens up a Western book of names and goes down the line of “A” names and you end up with Agnus, Amy, Andy.  A whole new identity assigned to you by chance.  I like hearing the stories how they begged for a different name, searched for meanings in books, etc.  Others choose their names.  A common name for Chinese is Michael since the characters that make the name up in Mandarin stand for something really strong and good.  But my all-time favorites are the ones that choose their names later on in life – after experiencing many things.  My last trip to China, I met an Eva who chose her name from an American Idol contestant she thought was beautiful.  I’ve met several Madonnas (singer not biblical), a couple Sinatras, a few Princes (again singer), a scattering of Elvis’, a Ting A Ling Ding, Antony from the Godfather movies, and my favorite, Bon Jovi.  How fun would that be to make your new name?  I still don’t know what I would choose.

Real World Example:  Brought a client over from a hardware company.  First time there for him.  I tried to prep him but he was one of those A type personalities – my way or the highway.  It didn’t take long for his arrogance and ignorance to wear thin on the factory personnel.  No lunch, too tired for dinner, collecting business cards in a pile and slapping them into his pocket and even pointing at Buddha (a no-no).  After the trip, the client told me what a great time he had and what great people they are.  I heard the opposite from the factory and some minor repair was needed to keep the relationship alive.  Suffice to say, when things are needed from the factory his things are usually the last to be addressed.  And he never knew why.

Summary:  Be aware, be respectful, be appreciative.  When in Rome…

Posted by Joel Buckley
Specialized in product development, sourcing, marketing and branding


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