Cultural Differences – China

The engineer had really been looking forward to his expatriate assignment to China. He had read several books on the Chinese mentality and tried to pick up some Mandarin. Yet, even months after his arrival in Peking he had the feeling that he had not got one step further in the Chinese subsidiary of his company. The contact with his Chinese colleagues seemed cordial, yet, on the other hand somewhat vague. In most cases meetings and negotiations with Chinese business partners didn’t lead to any results, and amongst his colleagues he increasingly felt excluded.

First contact with Chinese mentality

Brigitte Hild, who has a lot of expat-experience herself, is not surprised by this story: “Actually this is a typical situation for a foreign engineer who tries to gain a foothold in everyday work in China. To a foreigner the Chinese mentality seems to be quite complicated. And even experienced managers will have to face the fact that professional success is impossible without taking this mentality into account.”

Etiquette guide China

  • Elaborate business cards are a necessity
  • Hand over your business card with both hands. In so doing, hold it in a way that your business partner can read it right away.
  • One side of the business card should be printed in Chinese letters
  • Read you counterpart’s business card carefully
  • In a restaurant the food is ordered together and shared
  • Munching and spilling show that the food is delicious
  • Usually one person pays the bill discreetly
  • If your host has paid the bill make sure that you return the favour next time

The Chinese mentality is characterised by three generations

When dealing with Chinese business partners or colleagues you should always consider which generation the person you are dealing with belongs to. Elder and traditional Chinese represent the mindset and behaviour that is usually associated with Asian mentality: modesty, a strong need for harmony, orientation towards consensus as well as the importance of being part of a group. However, in most cases foreign managers will not deal with this generation.

The middle-aged generation which has been shaped by socialist values can usually be found in state-owned companies and government departments. Members of this generation who grew up from 1949 onwards, witnessed the cultural revolution between 1966 and 1976 and stand for bureaucracy. On the other hand they have developed a profit orientation for their own good by which they try to make up for their “lost years”.

As of 1978 Chinas head of state, Deng Xiaoping, began to implement far reaching economic reforms which were accompanied by an opening of the country. This led to a steady development of prosperity combined with an improved quality of living. Both aspects provide the basis the third Chinese generation. Members of this generation like to display their being hip with western products. Their education is embedded in an elite-orientated system and from the beginning of their career they are used to tough competition and to permanently being judged in regard to their individual performance.

So depending on the age of Chinese business partners and the respective generation they are part of foreign managers should adapt their behaviour in terms of respect, courtesy and interpersonal dealings as well as negotiation tactics and leadership.

Code of behaviour and communication style

The Chinese business culture is dominated by an inductive way of arguing: the speaker will usually start out by expressing rather vague arguments. Only at the end of his explanations he finally will state his main thesis. This means that you have to listen carefully in order to put together the expressed arguments in the right order.

In other cultures the style of communication follows exactly opposite rules: At first you state your main argument, then you explain it. “When members of these cultures meet with Chinese it quite often is the case that both sides are rather irritated”, says intercultural expert Daniela Fehring. “Both parties claim that the other side doesn’t get straight to the point. Listening to the Chinese, members of other cultures miss the main point since from their point of view all they hear are single statements that don’t seem to be connected with each other. If the Chinese speaker is finally concludes with his main argument his listeners usually have already stopped listening.” Chinese on the other hand see the beginning of a conversation as a “warming-up-phase” and therefore also miss the most important.”

A solution that works for both sides actually sound quite simple: by repeating the central statements several times – at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of a statement – both sides can make sure that their listeners are really getting the implied message.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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