Bridging the cultural business gap

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Misunderstandings are a common part of everyday life. So are assumptions, judgements, or other mental activities that involve coming to a conclusion without a clear grasp of the facts. It’s like using a telescope when the lens is covered in a thick layer of dust and trying to decide which way to steer a yacht. With this approach you’ll probably end up with less of a boat than you started with.

The same goes for the fine art of doing business. Let’s take for example the stereotype of the enterprising exporter. This person is fearless and the entire planet is their marketplace. They no doubt possess a very positive outlook and so they should. But before they do business with a nation other than their own, they should think very carefully about getting under the skin of the country in their sites.

Take China for example. Maybe you’re a Western born exporter or buyer looking to do business in the Chinese market? Or maybe you’re just attending a simple business meeting on behalf of your organisation? If so, then you may as well gather all of the cultural practices you’ve spent time honing and safely store them away for when you return home.

Having encountered many business meetings and presentations in the UK, I have found them to be fluid and informal. The first thing on the agenda is the breakfast pastries and plenty of them. It’s rather like a heist on a Patisserie coupled with enough coffee to unbalance a tank. The employees pile in and take three days’ worth of croissants before heading back to their seats.

This approach couldn’t be further from what our friends in East Asia practise. For one thing, seniority comes first. In a Chinese meeting room, don’t be surprised if the person next to you addresses the company Chairman or Director by their title. This is a sign of respect for hierarchy. In much the same way, the structure of the meeting will not take on the fluid approach of Western style meetings. In China, the senior members of each company will do most if not all of the talking, with the lower ranks saying little to nothing. This is something that would seem entirely strange in a Western meeting room where the session can often take the form of an open discussion.

Transparency in the meeting room may also mirror that of any business deal itself. In practice, this means that when a Chinese Chairman or Director responds with silence to something their Western counterpart says, it is not necessarily a sign of agreement, but in fact is most often a signal that they do not feel that continuing the debate will be polite. One important thing to keep in mind is this. In Chinese business, as with Chinese culture, it is all about saving and giving face, respect for elders and rankings (especially when dealing with government officials), as well as patience, politeness and modesty.

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