It is pure Western arrogance to go to Asia and expect to do business as we do in the West. Even with the best intentions, what works in the West can result in failure in the Far East.
We need to learn how to communicate with Asians, particularly as China becomes an economic powerhouse. We can't do that without understanding some of the dramatic differences in our cultures. When we choose to adapt our behavior out of respect for cultural differences, we start the process of building the deep human connection that the Chinese crave. That emphasis on relationship will build trust and assure loyalty to you long into the future.
Companies have to understand that the Asian need for respect and acknowledgement governs all business communication, not just negotiations. It takes careful training and preparation to avoid costly cross-cultural gaffes. The folks who interact with Asian customers, suppliers, and local staff by phone, fax, and e-mail need to be just as aware of cross-cultural sensitivities as the business traveler or meeting planner who brings home the.
Chinese people are highly adaptable, anxious to do business, and willing to overlook minor indiscretions. But some Western behaviors can cause loss of face, which can have serious consequences. This is because a common way of preventing loss of face is passive resistance. You will not be challenged directly, because that would be rude. Instead, you will be met with quiet, submission, and outward non-resistance. This is the underlying cause of costly delays and production errors.
Once we know the Western behaviors that elicit passive resistance, we can make the small changes that have a major impact on productivity. Here are three key areas to focus on:
The Western system rewards independent decision-making. We value the philosophy of individual accountability. We ask to speak directly to the decision-maker. When customer issues arise, we demand that someone take responsibility. In China, while the senior person makes major decisions, lesser decisions are reached by consensus. In the latter case, no one person is responsible.
When you pressure your Asian colleagues for a decision, you are asking them to defy their instincts, their culture, and their training. They will not act, because they cannot act alone. So the decision you want will stall. To speed the decision process, slow down. Make sure that all parties receive the same detailed information. Keep everyone in the loop.
In Western cultures, brainstorming is frequently used to help solve problems. But this freewheeling Western brainstorming method goes against strict hierarchical codes of conduct in Asia. Successful brainstorming in our culture requires that everyone's ideas be treated equally, without regard for authority. But in a status-conscious culture, where acknowledging rank is critical to maintaining face and where people are taught to take business seriously and not make mistakes, the Western way of brainstorming presents an impossible situation for most Asians.
Consequently, it is best to avoid brainstorming. Instead, try to solve problems logically, and defer to the person in authority. Allow one person to speak at a time. Start from the beginning and work through to a solution in a logical, step-by-step fashion.
- Information Management
Westerners have a tendency to come to the conversation only partially prepared. They feel confident in their ability to wing it. If they do not have all the necessary information, they will provide it later. However, Asians are offended by partial answers because it signals a lack of preparednes. That can cause loss of face and loss of trust.
Break your requests for information into smaller segments. Prepare for every interaction. Do not present an idea or theory that has not been fully researched, proven, or studied beforehand. Do not risk looking unprepared by deluging your Asian contact with partial answers and frequent updates.
If you are unable to provide a complete response, acknowledge the request, apologize for the inconvenience, and then provide a complete and accurate response when the facts are in. Document everything in writing and in detail. Make sure that your facts are 100 percent accurate. You will lose credibility if there are errors, and they will be used against you later.
Present your ideas in stages. Prepare each document as a stand-alone file, with background, rationale, analysis, and logic built into the text. Write clearly, using plain English text. Use visuals at every opportunity, including sketches, charts, and diagrams to appeal to the visual bias of many Asians. Keep everyone in the communication loop by copying them on all written and e-mail follow-up correspondence.
It helps to understand that most Chinese understand far less spoken English than we think they do. They smile and nod (because there is shame in not fully understanding), and we interpret that to mean the communication is understood. Fortunately, small changes in your communication style can make a big difference in making sure that you're being understood. For example, talk in short sentences. Listen more than you speak. Pause between sentences. Find four or five easy ways to say the same thing. Never ask a question that can be answered with a simple yes. Avoid all slang. And skip the humor altogether.
Mia Doucet is an author, speaker, consultant, and facilitator who works with global firms to help them increase profits in the Pacific Rim by “doing small things right.” She wrote the cross-cultural guide, “China in Motion: 17 Secrets to Slashing the Time to Production, to Market, and to Profits in China, Japan, and South Korea,” published by Bankerman Press in 2005.