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American-Chinese Intercultural Workplace Communication. Getting It Right.

Posted in China Business

Read a couple of fascinating articles recently on the differences between US and China work cultures.

The first was not really an article so much at all, but rather, a graphic depiction (put together by Christina Larson) of the results of global study of workplace cultures undertaken by Steelcase, a leading US-based office furniture company.  As I am certain that any attempt on my part to summarize this article, entitled, Office Cultures: A Global Guide, will fall woefully short of either doing it justice or conveying critical information, I instead strongly urge you to look at the article yourself and even go here to read the study.   I will note, however, that I have a lot of experience in working with companies from Germany, China, Russia and the United States and my experiences jibe pretty much exactly with the findings.

What the study shows is that American workers (workers is very broadly defined) and Chinese workers (same definition for workers) are very very different.  Like Mars and Venus different.  Maybe even more so.  Absolutely fascinating stuff.

The other article is over at the Atlas-China blog on the value of intercultural skills in the workplace, entitled, Effective American-Chinese Intercultural Communication in the Workplace and it starts out  discussing a recent survey on “Culture at Work“ by Ipsos Public Affairs, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the British Council in which employers “globally ranked ‘demonstrates respect for others’ and ‘builds trust’ as the top two most important skills — higher than ‘qualifications related to the job’ and any other surveyed technical skills.”  

The Atlas post then sets out the following four methods to ameliorate Chinese-American cultural differences and to facilitate “effective intercultural communication in the workplace” and thereby develop respect and trust among employees.

  • Stop, Ask, and Listen When speaking with your Chinese colleagues, try to avoid letting your tendency toward expression overshadow theirs. Inquire about their opinions before expressing yours, and make sure to listen and give them time to answer at their own pace. Not only will doing so help you get to know your colleagues better and understand their perspective on projects you share at work, but it will also show them that you care about their opinion and want to take the time to understand it. This show of respect will help build trust going forward.
  • Context Matters – To effectively listen to colleagues, it is also important to determine in what context your colleagues are most comfortable speaking. If asking a question in one context (such as in a meeting or lunch where other colleagues are present) does not elicit the kind of openness that you hope for, try again in another context (such as a one-on-one chat or private lunch). Because Chinese culture places great importance on group harmony and face, the more colleagues participating in a discussion, the more likely your Chinese colleagues will defer to others (especially those of higher rank) and not say what they truly think. 
  • Resist Making AssumptionsIn some situations, personal, social, or political dynamics that you aren’t aware of may come into play, and asking simple, polite questions can help clarify things. For example, one day I was working on a small project with a colleague who seemed especially eager to finish and leave the office. I was a little frustrated by this, because we had to turn in the finished project before we left that day. I felt like I was being rushed and that my colleague wasn’t committed enough to doing a good job. Finally I asked my colleague if she had plans after work, and she told me that actually she had to catch her carpool home soon, otherwise it would take her two hours to get home by bus — a circumstance quite common in China’s enormous, congested cities. I immediately felt like a jerk for the assumptions I had made, especially considering that I was lucky enough to live within walking distance of the office. Armed with the information I learned from asking a simple question, on future projects I was better able to budget the time I spent working with this colleague so that I didn’t feel rushed and so she didn’t miss her carpool.
  • Ask Questions…But Not Too Many!While in many cases asking questions and listening can be crucial to effective American-Chinese intercultural communication in the workplace, it is possible to ask too many questions or ask them in inappropriate circumstances. Once I went to one of my Chinese colleagues to ask questions regarding a work-related topic in her area of expertise. After several questions, she seemed to become a little defensive, asking me why I was so curious to know all of these details that didn’t seem very relevant. I realized that rather than seeing my many questions as sign of interest in and respect for her expertise, she might have felt that I doubted the accuracy of her initial responses, or she may have been embarrassed that she couldn’t answer every single question.

I have made every single mistake referred to above and though I would not go so far as to say (à la Paula Deen) that “If there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wished they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me,” I would guess that I do not stand alone on this.

Or do I?

What do you think?

  • ScottLoar

    Plainly explain the reasoning for a policy or action, otherwise the Chinese will assume the lowest motive.

  • Tim

    The Steelcase study is a spinoff of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Theory. It attempts to take a complex and difficult to define concept like culture and reduce it to a dot on a carteasen plane. Reminds me of the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ character has his students rip out the section on assessing poetry using a similar metric.

    This is a clever way to repackage stereotypes in a form that appeals to most business people (illustrated and scaled) but does very little to inform. Just like learning a language, if you want to understand a culture it takes a serious commitment of time, in this case, to the layered reasons behind the behavior.