I have written many times on how cultural awareness is a grossly overrated skill for doing business in China, but never quite so bluntly as my friend Stan Abrams does over at China Hearsay, in his post, entitled, “Cultural Awareness.
As you can see from my previous posts, (here, here, and here) I was essentially saying knowledge of Chinese culture is secondary to knowledge of business when it comes to doing a China deal (as opposed to marketing a product in China).
Stan seems to feel even stronger:

OK, I’m probably going to really piss off AmCham after posting this, but screw it. I received an announcement yesterday for the following workshop:

Cultural Intelligence: Working Effectively in a Multicultural Environment
This workshop aims to improve the cultural intelligence of employees in multicultural work environments. In order to operate effectively in the workplace, it is essential that all employees are able to anticipate potential conflicts and have the skills to address issues which may arise due to cultural misunderstandings.

This kind of thing has traditionally annoyed me ever since I got to university in the late 80s and was forced, along with the rest of the student body, to undergo “sensitivity training.” I am aware that there are folks who make a living giving this kind of advice to multinationals, and I don’t want to deprive anyone of their livelihood.

Stan sees it all as a “big scam”:

I think it’s all a big scam. I do not consider myself an expert on multicultural issues, but in my experience here since ’99, practically all disputes I’ve seen between foreigners and locals can be avoided by giving people the following advice when they are hired, “Don’t be an asshole.” Simple, yet effective.
I think China is a much easier country than many others for your typical expat to deal with. There are not a lot of cultural hoops to jump through, and people here are exceptionally forgiving if someone makes a faux pas. Compared to the Middle East or other parts of Asia, China does not really present a huge challenge. As long as you’re not an asshole to your co-workers, that is.
Are there exceptions? Sure. Foreigners should avoid use of euphemisms and culturally-specific references, although I think people should be smart enough to figure that out on their own. My old boss liked to allude to old TV shows and U.S. history, most of which references the staff didn’t get. That’s not a good practice, but it was a benign habit that certainly didn’t piss anyone off.

He concludes by saying he will not be attending.
Stan is 99% right. The key to cultural sensitivity can almost always be boiled down to not being an asshole. I have been handling international law matters for more than 20 years, involving countries I know well, some I know fairly well, and some I barely know at all. I am sure I have made many faux pas during that time, including right here in the United States. But, I have never come remotely close to causing a deal to go South. I would love to hear from people aware of a deal that failed due to an inadvertent cultural mistake NOT relating to someone being an asshole, as that word is defined in all cultures.

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.