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.

  • “Don’t be an asshole” is good general advice and is certainly a sufficient caveat for the average thoughtful person doing business in a foreign culture. However, the sad fact is there are a lot of thoughtless, well… assholes out there who just won’t take that advice. From personal experience, I recall a certain CEO of a medium-sized company in New England who threw tantrums and banged his fists on the table during negotiations with his Chinese counterparts. The interpreter, one of my colleagues, had repeatedly suggested that he refrain from being loud and aggressive but this young “ambitious” CEO would have nothing of it. His outbursts caused us innumerable headaches and wasted lots of time. Curious as to why a multimillionaire boy-wonder CEO was acting like a cranky 3 year old? He thought the wording of the contract was problematic. Long story short, we resolved the contract issues by having our respective offices communicate amongst ourselves (sans CEO) until we found a very reasonable compromise.
    Smart people don’t really need “sensitivity training,” horrible jerks on the other hand, do. And they should pay through the nose for it.

  • I find that Chinese are actually quite forgiving even for people who behave like complete assholes. It probably depends on where you are in China, too, most Chinese I came across are not even anticipating that foreigners know much about their culture, such as saving face. It feels rather like that much more strict rules are applied to fellow Chinese, who are aware of the culture though.
    I could only imagine some minor cultural clashes, like when a Chinese would ask a westerner have he had eaten yet, which would probably result in the average westerner making a strange face. No harm done though. And I guess in the business world most Chinese will be aware of such things anyway. I guess the mere fact that western culture is more and more wide spread throughout the media, even Chinese tend to be aware of the differences.

  • Dan,
    I agree with your adeptly calculated ‘99%’ figure 🙂 But I feel that sometimes when dealing with the Chinese on the negotiating level, you have to be a bit more on the firm side these days. I get the sense (and there is absolutely no scientific or quantifiable proof for this) that the Chinese who deal with foreigners are expecting us to bend over backward to accomodate them. Call it an inflated sense of ego if you will, propogated by the state run media (I, being part of that group) that innondate the Chinese community at large with glowing reports of how the world ‘needs’ China and how foreign interests are falling over themselves to come here and do business. So I actually don’t think the occasional — and I stress occasional — outburst isn’t always a bad thing.

  • Handan

    I’m with Stan Abrams on his don’t-be-an-asshole advice, but don’t see how that makes cultural sensitivity training nonsense. Since there are assholes out there and you can’t just turn them into sensible people by offering one line of advice, although I wish it were that easy, training comes in to help. Not that I think it’s possible to reshape an asshole in this late a stage of life. This is precisely why we don’t even try to aim at turning an asshole completely around. We just focus on partial improvements, which are within reach, on culture-related matters, where asshole characteristics DO tend to be brought out in greater intensity. Indeed, what’s more practical? Call an asshole in the face and tell him/her to change without giving specs on how? Or avoid labelling them assholes and just pretend that all they need is more cultural sensitivity, and give them more through effective ways?

  • Tim

    ‘Don’t be an asshole’ has less to do with cultural knowledge and generally a sound rule of behavior for any social animal. To put it another way, we learned this when we were in kindergarten and although it’s sad that folks need to be reminded of it, we’re not talking the end all be all of multi-cultural enlightenment.
    The point of cultural understanding is not just how to behave in front of the other side; there are a myriad of issues that underlie deals here that fail as a result of other issues than being an asshole. If you and your Chinese partner are not working on the same underlying assumptions of how a business should be run (a problem that plagues many a JV and quasi local company) it doesn’t take you to be an asshole to see that venture fail. I have witnessed a friend whose entire team up and left the company and it wasn’t because the foreign management were assholes but due to misunderstandings of responsibilities that for a western employee with a western work ethic (not implying laziness here, just a difference in the underlying assumptions of a person’s role in the workplace) would have understood tacitly. Moreover the question should not be: is cultural ignorance tantamount to failure but rather is cultural knowledge important to success?
    The problem with many Americans is that we were exposed to this idea of ‘cultural sensitivity’ and political correctness that do not equate to cultural knowledge but we often confuse the definitions. Instead PC training has been applied in the States as a quick fix to underlying tensions between racial and ethnic groups that has made quite a few Americans very resentful – not to mention being extremely ineffective. I can remember being forced to sit through a sexual assault lecture when I was in High School where all of us guys were told that we were all ‘potential rapists.’ When one guy raised his hand to ask why a woman could not rape a man, his masculinity was called into question by the lecturer. In many ways PC and cultural/gender/racial sensitivity training uses the same tactics to imply guilt and shame in lieu of understanding to force people into compliance (residuals of a puritanical past?).
    This is where I believe the ‘don’t be an asshole’ argument starts to break down – as it relies on a superficial understanding of how our cultures shape our assumptions of reality and as a result, how we interact with that reality. Sensitivity and PCness does little more than teach a person how to suppress their initial reactions in favor of reactions that are more ‘sensitive’ to those around.
    Cultures are amazing. In many ways they act like a living thing in how they constantly change and adapt. There is merit in their study outside of the business world – especially for those of us who choose to live in a country with a dramatically different culture than our own.

  • Handan

    “I have witnessed a friend whose entire team up and left the company and it wasn’t because the foreign management were assholes but due to misunderstandings of responsibilities that for a western employee with a western work ethic (not implying laziness here, just a difference in the underlying assumptions of a person’s role in the workplace) would have understood tacitly.”
    I like this part of argument very much. Was trying to back it up with more elaboration but am sadly not up to it. Will someone out there do it maybe?

  • Jack Perkowski

    Stan’s the Man and he is right on. It’s very easy to make China very complicated, when in fact, common sense and just being a decent, considerate person goes a long way.

  • Sorry, but you trod on my pet peeve about American “English”: It’s arse, not ass. An ass is a donkey. And arse is one’s rear end. Now that I have that out of my system (and this reaction happens every time, and if you think that was bad, you want to see me reading the word ‘ass’ used when ‘arse’ was called for in the New Zealand media):
    Every time I’m asked by a newly arrived teacher or other educational worker (because that’s my field) what they should do, I say: Just be yourself, but be respectful. The simplest way to put it is the way Jesus and Confucius and a gazillion other said it: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Except, of course, in a multicultural context the “doing unto” takes some different forms sometimes. That’s why I say “be yourself, but be respectful”.
    Paul said: “But I feel that sometimes when dealing with the Chinese on the negotiating level, you have to be a bit more on the firm side these days.”
    And I would call this creeping nationalism, and I agree you have to be firm, but polite and respectful. The examples we all know, from getting abusively angry and thumping the desk down to that French (?) guy last year (?) who finally got caught and exposed using a starter’s pistol to scare his Chinese employees into submission are the way NOT to go. So yes, be firm, but politely and respectfully firm.
    Tim says: “This is where I believe the ‘don’t be an asshole’ argument starts to break down – as it relies on a superficial understanding of how our cultures shape our assumptions of reality and as a result, how we interact with that reality. Sensitivity and PCness does little more than teach a person how to suppress their initial reactions in favor of reactions that are more ‘sensitive’ to those around.”
    I have to strongly disagree. “Don’t be an arsehole” means “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It’s not superficial in any way, shape or form; it is the beginning of cultural knowledge. And suppressing one’s intial reactions is often necessary in cross-cultural contexts, if only so that you can evaluate the situation and come up with the best possible response.
    And Paul says again: “So I actually don’t think the occasional — and I stress occasional — outburst isn’t always a bad thing.”
    Yes, and let me add “very carefully measured” to that “occasional”. As a teacher, and yes I know I teach at the university undergrad level, but, well, welcome to China, I do find myself having to use a very carefully measured outburst every now and then. The key is to let them think you’re angry and state clearly what needs to change but without actually being angry, let alone losing your temper. This is very particular to my job as a teacher, but I’m sure it can be applied to business, too, but every now and then my students need to be firmly put back in their place (I mean that purely in a teacher-student relationship sense), and to do that I have to retain absolute full control of myself, and yet let them know exactly how and with what I am not happy, and make sure that is done in the least arsehole way possible.
    But yes, “Don’t be an arsehole” is 99%, and very definitely the start of it all.

  • Dan:
    Two thoughts captured to a degree in the previous comments:
    (1) cultural sensitivity training can be very useful in multicultural workplaces (i.e. where your ex-pat employees will be managing / working along side of foreign nationals in your operation). My reading is that this is more the situation at which the seminar that Stan will not be attending was aimed. This is a different situation than negotiating a deal in the first instance — a situation in which I agree with you completely that cultural sensitivity is a minor concern next to business accumen. But, sucessfully negotiating and closing a deal despite some cultural insensitivity is a pyrrhic victory if the ensuing enterprise falls apart because the U.S. and foreign employees can’t work effectively together. And while I, like you, haven’t seen a negotiation fall apart simply due to a lack of cultural understanding, I have certainly seen operations become far costlier than they should or fail altogether as a result of cultural blocks and cultural friction.
    (2) Obviously most deals fail because one side or the other concludes that the apparent end game of the negotiations will not produce a positive financial result. I would say the second most common reason deals fall apart is because one side or the other doesn’t have the patience or isn’t willing to invest the time necessary to develop the level of trust and relationship necessary to produce a mutually beneficial deal. Bad behavior and cultural insensitivity are probably a distant third and non-existent fourth respectively among reasons negotiations fail.

  • Glen Wilkins,
    Gosh, that CEO fits the description of a former MA based client of my former firm who after one of our lawyers hung up on him threatened to come over and kick his ass, and come over he did. We broke it up before anything happened…..
    I don’t think sensitivity training works with the “true jerks,” who seem to love themselves just as they are. Does it, work that is?

  • Martin,
    I think you are absolutely right about us Westerners being given a fair amount of leeway.
    Reminds me though of a guy here in Seattle I knew who spoke fluent Russian. He was a very strange guy and did not really get along with any of his fellow Americans, but seemed to get along fabulously with Russians, who used him to help them conduct their business in the US. One day I asked our Russian paralegal about him. I asked if the Russians knew how weird this guy was viewed by his fellow Americans and if they too thought he was weird. “Of course,” she replied, “how could they not?” They just are willing to/have to overlook it. That’s my long handed way of saying that though things may get overlooked, they do stick.

  • Paul,
    I completely agree with you. Please note that I attended Indiana University Law School, long-time home of Bobby Knight, the master of the (usually) well timed outburst.
    There is absolutely a time and a place for blowing one’s stack and that time and place does vary by country. For example, and I hate to say this, but I have found that oftentimes to get things done in Korea I have to raise my voice.

  • Handan,
    I am not going to fight you on a single thing you said because you are probably right and I have no real basis for contending otherwise.
    Stan is a super-smart, super-nice guy who has been living in China forever. I wrote this post with my tongue somewhat in my cheek to make the point that cultural sensitivity is overemphasized and can only go so far. I’m betting Stan did the same thing. No way would Stan really claim that merely not being an asshole gets one all the keys to the kingdom and I am not really claiming that either.

  • Tim,
    Very nicely put. Studying cultures is fascinating and I love it. Knowing a culture can only help. But, it has its limits, particularly in a business transaction. I carved out space regarding the importance of culture for marketing, but I should have added HR to that as well.

  • There is too much money to be made to sour a deal because someone committed a cultural faux pas that the other side probably realizes you didn’t know. There are unsubstantiated lists lists of cultural insensitivities that have hurt deals (Tiffany’s no longer uses white ribbon in China, only red), but the only remotely modern instance of cultural insensitivity putting the kibosh on relations between parties is Thomas Jefferson’s Pell-mell Etiquette when he took the White House. It is a little unclear whether Jefferson first instituted the Pell-mell specifically to anger the sensitive British Minister Merry, or whether the original purpose was to promote equality, but Minister Merry stopped coming to the White House and relations between the US and UK became even more strained. It couldn’t have been that bad, they both spoke the same language so there was no need for either side to engage the loud arm-waving translation device.

  • Jack,
    Exactly. That’s the point. Let’s not go too far with this culture thing. An extreme example happened to me a few months back when four engineers/execs, with about 20-30 years experience in their industry told me about 5 companies with whom they had met regarding manufacturing in China. They then asked me who they should choose, as though it were a culture thing.

  • Chris Waugh,
    Very nicely put. I like it!

  • Craig Maginess,
    Good points. I actually was involved in a settlement of a $15 million case in which the settlement failed due to a lack of cultural awareness. I was representing a large Asian company in a lawsuit against a large American company and we struck a deal and, for the second day in a row, my Korean client invited the 4-5 people negotiating for the Americcans to lunch and they turned us down for the second day in a row. My Korean client became so furious they nixed the deal. It took another month of telephone negotiations between the American lawyers AND a trip over to Korea by the American CEO to make nice and to get the deal done. The lack of cultural sensitivity increased costs by at least $100,000 total. So it can happen, but I do think it is very rarely.
    Again, my whole point here was not to say that one should not be culturally sensitive, but that being respectful is nearly always enough.

  • Will Lewis,
    Nice points. There is sometimes the assumption that all Westerners are alike. Not so. My firm has a German lawyer and we have a number of German clients and the American way of doing things does not mix well there. Our casualness can be viewed very poorly.
    That is a great list, but I do not believe all of them are true. No way. It seems they have taken every Chinese cultural “thing” and made it into a story. Find me the “green hat” company!!!!

  • The really valuable course would be the one that teaches the average highly-educated, highly intelligent, somewhat socially inept lawyer not to be an arsehole.
    Then again, you can’t legislate for all of this stuff. What constitutes ‘not being an arsehole’ differs from workplace to workplace, so it would hardly be surprising if it differed across borders.
    When I switched from a UK to a US firm I was surprised how much of the social behaviour we would expect to fall within the bounds of ‘don’t be an arsehole’ at my former employer was explicitly codified in policies in my new one. But there were genuine cultural differences as well. Example: at “UK LLP” it was taken for granted that you wouldn’t, say, make a pass at your secretary*, but there was a general acceptance of colleagues dating colleagues – even across seniority levels – it used to happen quite a lot in fact, and no-one batted an eyelid. Here, policy explicitly forbids it (and if you date within your seniority level, you are both supposed to report it to the partnership).
    Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if what passes for mild teasing or robust feedback in the UK / US feels like serious aggression or bullying to your average just-out-of-Bei-Da (or Zheng Da) graduate. I’ve had Chinese friends – male and female – burst into tears while recounting really pretty mild tickings-off they’ve received (or on occasion imagined) from superiors. Bluntness is not necessarily a good tool for people-management in the PRC.
    *Rumour suggests that this rule is occasionally relaxed at Christmas parties ,but this may be a near-universal constant.

  • Sensitivity training, learning to use chopsticks and avoiding insulting the host isn’t what it’s about.
    If you do not understand the mindset of the person with whom you doing business, you are at a loss. Those who have this knowledge are at an advantage compared to those who don’t. The same is true of language skills.
    The simplest analogy I can think of is swimming. Anyone who has practiced the breaststroke is more likely to make it across the lake than someone who has never been in the water.
    Rich Kuslan, Editor

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  • Dual Culture Global Liver

    The science of Culture Shock and the fact all cultures are different, with specific social and business customs mean that co-workers need to comprehend the total mindset of the other. This is proven science researched in the modern age since 1950s. Culture Shock shouts loud from every post listed by people dealing with huge financial deals. What is the point of deals when the mental illness of culture shock will afflict those working long-term together day in and day out over extreme and chronic stress injury over a period of months and years. Nervous breakdown hits not only the co-workers but the expat’s family and children. Look up the psychology and anthropology of culture shock on google. The pain and anguish is sad.

  • MissXu

    Well, don’t be an a**hole is generally the rule in life, regardless of culture but there is a lot to being culturally sensitive as well.
    I’d add another simple rule, NEVER presume that you understand another culture’s perspective.
    What is appropriate/not varies greatly and there is something to be said about cultural relevance + interpretation.
    One example? The use of facemasks in China/Japan. To most Westerners, the immediate reaction is “those people don’t want to get sick”. However, to the Chinese/Japanese, it’s “we don’t want to get other people sick”.
    So, you can see how something so simple can have catastrophic effects when one is unaware of the other’s intentions.
    So sorry guys, I don’t feel that cultural training is b***sh**.
    For those that may want to keep an open mind, Prof. Geert Hofstede, http://www.geert-hofstede.com/ has done some really fantastic work on this.

  • Dan

    I also do not think cultural training is “b***sh**.” All I am saying is that for doing many businesses overseas, it is far less important than it is cracked up to be. It is essential for some businesses, but not terribly important for others. My experience (and that of just about everyone with whom I have discussed the subject) is that good businesspeople succeed in China, whether they know the culture or not.

  • Maybe in negotiations between businesses, cultural sensitivity is pretty straightforward, but I found that working at a Chinese company where I was the only Westerner was much more complicated than just being nice.
    Some aspects of the work culture at my job in China that I have never seen in the U.S.: people came into work hours late but stayed equally late, employees had a very strict and visible hierarchy, and my boss scolded me for snacking at my desk.

  • Bob Mugneth

    The problem with this idea is that it assumes you know what correct behavior is all the time. However, the golden rule doesn’t work across cultures in any global fashion. Treating people the way you like to be treated only works if they are like you. To be most effective, you need to learn to treat people how they like to be treated and manage to mesh that with your needs–not so easy.

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  • SM

    What you guys don’t get is that in a global multi-national corporation, parts, goods, information and services are all moving around the world to accomplish a customer-focused mission in a competitive environment. The effectiveness, growth and lifespan of an organization are determined by the quality and speed of information flow, and the decisions made based on that information. This holds true from both a social and financial perspective. Every miscommunication within a firm costs money and every delay of a decision directly impacts the customer. Whether a firm loses a 125 million dollar piece of equipment as occurred with NASA when Lockheed Martin used the English system for the Mars orbiter project (either unaware or unconcerned regarding the fact that the world uses Metric), or if its “simply” a matter of inefficiency and poor teamwork because the American who “went to bat” to get a “ball-park figure” spends an average of 5 hours a week explaining his terminology or redoing work because people tuned out of his meetings, it a real business problem. Cross-cultural issues cost real money, and are not largely due to people being assholes. Good people, especially in a culture like the US, simply lack of tools, information, support and accountability to navigate in today’s global economy. In big business, spending a little to hire employees like me or external consultants to build programs designed to to improve cross-cultural communication and teamwork has nothing to do with changing assholes into saints, its about insights, new ways of viewing the world, and new practices that flow from seeing things differently. We run programmatic initiatives to inculcate a global world view in a macro-setting that badly needs it and give good employees the tools, information and support they need to navigate today’s global economy. In fact, these functions and needs are still significantly under-resourced in most large multinationals, especially in light of the speed improvement can happen and the substantive financial and social pluses this improvement brings.

  • Oppa-H-ang

    Great article. I was searching for “can your friends becoming an asshole because of culture shock”. You see, we are attending graduate school in united states, and I came here 3 years earlier than him. Another 3 years passed, and he becoming extremely critical, voiced out, giving out unnecessary provocation, and extremely self-justified.

    Yes, he is an asshole, but in a many ways he is also a helpful fellow. He being asshole to other friends that come from the same country, but very nice to others. He always justified his actions even though it sound wrong, and refuse to admit his fault, instead just agree to disagree everytime. now, most of our friends from the same country does not like him.

    His wife is worst.. backbitting people from same country but very kind to others. If this is not symptoms of culture shock, then they must becoming a real asshole.