Understanding diversity in global business
The road to reconciling culture differences is not an easy one. When I taught English I often liked to write up sayings and idioms in English or Chinese. We would then debate about the truthfulness and applicability in modern society.
One of my favorite sayings is “When in Rome do as the Romans” or in Mandarin “Ru Xiang Sui Su (”enter the village and follow the customs”). I often challenged my student’s idea of the actual meaning. Their perception of the meaning would be: “This means I will follow Chinese traditions no matter which culture I am in. Everybody else is a foreigner so they should follow our traditions when they come here.”
I would explain as follows: “foreigners are expected to following Chinese customs in China but Chinese rarely follow foreign customs abroad (unless of course they are second/third generation). There are China Towns in every country over the world but where are the America Towns? (It is usually the street with the most bars in all actuality). The Chinese are a collective society which focuses on maintaining traditions. American’s are a multi-ethnic and diverse country where we experiment with different cultural traditions. We celebrate Hanukah along with Thanksgiving and Chinese New Year. Our sense of cultural identity comes from a blend of different traditions. The Chinese sense of cultural identity comes from maintaining traditions. Why am I expected to worshipfully adore traditional Chinese cultural symbols (martial arts, panda bears, fireworks, Beijing opera, and Chinese inventions, food, historical sites, dances, art and language) when Chinese reject foreign symbols as inferior and pointless?” (This would always heat things up and would hopefully get a rip roaring debate going– a good way to make introverted shy students talk!)
The average response would be as follows: “Chinese invented kung fu (the universally applicable word “martial arts” is not used). You foreigners only copied us. We invented art, medicine, and ancient technology and we are the oldest and most superior culture in the world. We invented the meaning of culture. Your cultures are all only cheap imitations. ”
Then I would follow up with “if China has the most superior culture in the world then where is it to be found? Why is the world Americanized and not Sino-ized? Chinese people laugh at their own martial arts, Chinese religion is considered satanic superstition, and nobody cares about art or knows anything about Chinese history. You don’t even know that the rest of the world thinks you still practice ancestral worship and burn incense at grave sites while you yourself have never even experienced it except for on TV. Everybody has become westernized and is only concerned with consumerism and materialism. You are basically American. How can foreigners be expected to revere something which Chinese themselves ignore?”
This artificial and provocative debate pretty much sums up past dialogues (though somewhat exaggerated) which were exchanged between students and myself. When you want to understand culture you first need to understand how individuals within the different cultures themselves view their own culture. Reading the textbook reveals much about how westerns view culture: the textbook is based on the experiences of a European businessman. It is empirically based with a lot of statistics and graphs breaking down different ethnicities and cultures and how they compare to each other. While it claims to non-judgmentally discuss culture it is still highly biased in its approach and methodology. (Not to mention the fact that it always lists Hong Kong and Taiwan and separate territories – that is like listing Alaska and Hawaii as separate territories. It is therefore politically biased.)
When studying culture through Chinese literature and textbooks it was refreshing to find little statistically data which constantly focuses on the breakdown of different ethnic groups and gender and how they compare. Due to Westerners obsession with ethnic identity, gender issues, etc you can’t study culture without reading about what percentage of surveyed Hispanics listen to music and how many times per week does a female South African brush her teeth. Empirically and scientifically based statistical data has its use and merit but is always over utilized by westerners. We understand culture through the eyes of the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Without science to literally prove to us we shun the information as unreliable and unprofessional.
Asians take a more holistic and theoretical approach. I find it very refreshing and enlightening. The information tends to be more practical and simple. Besides Asia there is much to learn from all cultures. The only way to truly comprehend culture is to study it from different cultural perspectives and authorities. This is the same for the business world: the key to successfully integrating different parts of a multinational company is to not only respect but to integrate the positive cultural aspects which each culture has to offer into the business as a whole.
Who determines your cultural values? I think that cultural values of ever individual (myself included) are initially pre-determined through childhood. Family plays a big role in influencing major values/ideas in regards to morality, society, religion, politics, and life in general. My parents were religious and conservative. As I child I was taught that the religious values and beliefs were superior to anything else and it was forbidden to challenge them. This limited my ability to understand and interact with different cultural values and groups. Over the years I have been able to slowly shed the religiously arrogant attitude which I was brought up in. Now as an adult my cultural values have been heavily influenced by Asian society, values and religion. After living in Asia for 7 years many of my values and beliefs have been integrated with alternative viewpoints. I am very satisfied with my adjustment of cultural values. Overall, I think it is the social and physical environment, which determines cultural values. Then again, it is the individual also who interacts with these different environments and accepts the surrounding cultural values.
For example, every culture has it’s own way in which the elderly are valued. In Asia the various cultures value the elderly more. Following the tradition of Confucianism the elderly are respected more than as would be in a Western society. Children and eventually adult children take an active role in taking care of parents and the elderly. The opinions of the elderly are highly valued.
This is very important when it comes to business negotiations because the opinion of the eldest member of the team is often valued the most. On a side note, people in China often say “America is heaven for children, hell for the elderly. China is hell for the children, heaven for the elderly.” Clearly, the cultural values towards the elderly in America and China are quite opposite. The traditions of China have clearly made an obvious cultural difference.
In China the negotiation process never stops and is very complicated. In America the negotiation process is a quick and friendly introduction and then intensive bargaining process. When it’s over it is finished and everything is usually final.
Negotiation is never finished in China. Contracts can take years to hammer out all the details. The negotiation process is a time for mutual understanding as the relationship develops. Foreigners are often impatient and can’t understand the chaotic and confusing Chinese negotiation styles. They often leave or quit in frustration and blame the Chinese for failing to ‘play by the rules’.
In the end it is important to know that socio-cultural differences are not detrimental but necessary for a diverse and healthy world. By understanding and respecting these differences there is harmony and peace.