bridging the cultural gaps between east and west
by amir gal-or
"i don’t understand.” “why do they think like this?” “why are they doing this?”. "why don’t they respond to us?” “is it a trick?” “are they trying to take advantage of us?” these are questions and concerns i have heard many times during my work related to china the last eight years, some on a daily basis, some repeatedly through the same day. these resurfacing doubts are mostly the product of a cultural gap and are genuinely felt on all sides of the cultural spectrum. such doubts frustrate all parties involved. and, when this happens it snowballs -miscommunication followed by misunderstanding and eventually, most unfortunately, mistrust.
one of the welcomed adventures of the last 8 years, for me and my colleagues born in countries other than china, has been learning the intricacies of the chinese culture. what and what not to do. what and what not to say. my goal was to understand the local culture well enough to function effectively and successfully. the good news was that i had guidance early on from my brother, who was already an established businessman in china as well as the support of several kind, patient and trustworthy chinese friends. these relationships helped to smooth the learning process and it didn’t take long to adapt and operate in a local manner. the ability today to clearly understand and operate accordingly with local chinese etiquette as well as that of western countries enables me and my colleagues to successfully guide our chinese and western partners towards their goals of symbiotic cooperation.
such gaps have a growing effect, given the fact that more and more chinese entrepreneurs and companies are exploring ways to bridge the cultural gaps between east and west.
i have the good fortune to be one who lives in both worlds – east and west. to my chinese brothers and sisters, please allow me to share some additional thoughts that will help you to better understand the “foreigners” a bit more.
1) messaging “between the lines”: most people in countries other than china do not easily understand the “unspoken”. they may need to be told more directly, in clear language as evaluating subtle messaging is not a strong point. feel free to be direct, and not to worry, your colleague from outside of china will not only not be offended, but may also actually appreciate your candor.
2) foreigners are very worried about operating in china since they hear repeatedly that their instincts may not apply well here. as a result they will sometimes appear to be very suspicious or slow reacting, when what they are really doing is resolving various fears. as an example, last year, like always, we were structuring an ip deal where a western company was licensing its technology to a chinese partner who was planning to further develop the line of products for the chinese market. both sides had agreed to all but two of the accord details: giving all of the source code before full payment and transparency regarding future development. cultural misunderstanding got in the way and the differences could not be bridged.
3) technology know-how: foreigners value technology know-how even before it has a brand or strong references. they feel that technology know-how is not just a tool, but truly an asset. most asians, however, see technology know-how more as a tool with questionable value, especially if there hasn’t been any branding. we have experienced this difference in philosophy, every single time, with every case, without exception. it boils down to the value placed by each side on the “essence” of what is being licensed. this gap is traditionally very wide. the nanomotion deal is a good case study of how to bridge this gap. we did so by arranging for the down payment to be made at the signing ceremony. this showed appreciation and understanding of value. the second half of the payment was based on results in the market with a downside protection.
for companies and entrepreneurs thinking to venture “outside of china” in terms of investments, acquisitions, etc, there is a growing need for these same people to make an effort to understand the culture of the country in which they are doing business. cultural gaps have the potential to create a high level of emotion, high enough for one to lose one’s objective business sense. i’ve seen it happen. for this reason as well as for the others noted earlier, closing cultural gaps are essential to avoiding misunderstanding and generating good communication, better focus and ultimately a higher chance at success.
so, let’s ask ourselves, what else do we need to understand about those who we wish to do business with outside of china in order to communicate well, understand one another clearly and develop trust?
let’s review some simple but important categories: eating, drinking and traveling. something as simple as dining can actually be a very complicated situation. first, not only is the food different in china than in the west, so too is the approach to food. in china it is much more about the cultural experience and the social significance; for foreigners it's more about enjoying the actual food itself. and, in some cases, food is merely seen as a means of sustenance to keep the proverbial engine going. as the saying goes, they eat to live rather than live to eat. two years ago a large pharma company hosted a high level delegation of soes from a chinese company. for the sake of sticking to the time table, rather than organizing formal dining, sandwiches were ordered for lunch. needless to say, the visiting delegation was insulted. they understood this to be a demonstration of the value the host placed on the potential cooperation.
in china, restaurant diners sit at a round table. larger plates of food are set in the middle for everyone to share and enjoy. diners use chopsticks. in the west, generally speaking, tables are of all shapes. diners use forks and knives. restaurant diners enjoy meals prepared for each at the table based on the individual order of each patron. no one shares. personally, i am a fan of sharing and of the art of eating with chopsticks. after 8 years or so, i am proud to share, that i have actually become quite proficient.
drinking: in china, heavy drinking is a part of the business culture; in the west however, not so much. westerners enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail at lunch or dinner. but that’s about it.
travel courtesies: hospitality, from the first to the last moment of a guest’s visit, is extremely important. an example of hospitality gone wrong taken from the early days - seven years ago a delegation from one of our city partners landed in tel aviv. our office sent a driver to greet our partner and to take care of him- the traditional way in israel. what was a “usual” in israel was considered bad taste by our chinese guest, who from his cultural stance, and rightfully so, expected to be welcomed personally by a senior company representative. to make things worse, the driver misplaced our partner’s belongings and did not understand a word of what our partner was trying to convey throughout their time together. though of course no ill will was ever intended, reality did not meet expectation due to a cultural gap and as a result there were bad feelings, luckily though, only for a short time. well, live and learn. since then we have been very careful with every detail when planning and hosting guests from china on a business trip to israel. from the moment our guest arrives in the country to the moment of departure, we have chinese speaking people with our guest at every point to ensure smooth communication as well as a senior level member of our team. but, keep in mind that this is how infinity works. so a small suggestion: when you are visiting a location outside of china, if you are collected at the airport by someone other than a senior level company official, best not to take it personally, as 1), this may be normal practice for that part of the world and 2) the company may not be in tune with chinese practice and your corresponding expectations, no matter how legitimate they may be.