Often, when Westerners deal with Chinese people, we hear them commenting about the challenges of jointly analyzing a problem and arriving at a solution. Westerners don’t understand why Chinese people don’t see what is obvious to them. Westerners find that the search for a solution simply takes too long. The level of frustration mounts on both sides.
In a book published by Taschen in 2015, a Chinese artist who has lived in Germany for the last 26 years created a series of illustrations that convey some of the differences between the Western and Chinese approaches in dealing with a problem.
Let us build on some of these illustrations to convey the stress a multicultural group might face.
- On how the situation is discussed
“Let’s get to the point” is often heard in Western meetings. Participants will directly discuss the issues that are key. That is not always the path used by Chinese people as they reflect on the environment and the context in which the issues are to be discussed. This hesitancy might result in comments such as “Stop beating around the bush”.
- On company hierarchy
In the West, when discussing a topic, we generally regard our boss as a person with whom we can be frank and share our thoughts openly. Chinese people will be careful not to contradict or steal the limelight from their supervisor. Authority must be respected and deferred to.
- On speaking one’s mind
Westerner will generally speak openly about their thoughts, while Chinese people will ensure that they communicate their thoughts in a manner that will not clash with the people they are working with. If this means that they need to adjust their comments, they will do so in order to preserve group harmony.
The above points represent some of the cultural challenges that need to be addressed if we are to bridge the gap with China. Major progress has been accomplished over the last 2 or 3 decades to train people in understanding the cultural differences and the resulting gap. More education needs to be done as China will play a greater role in the world. Unlike Japan, which did not engage the world in the 80’s and 90’s when its economic might could have allowed it, China wants to play that role. If the West is to succeed at working constructively with China with the goal of developing win-win situations, we must bridge this cultural gap. A clash would raise some nasty prospects.
Various models have been designed to illustrate how culture varies from country to country. One of the most popular models is from Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, who is a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. His model is based on 6 cultural dimensions. If you are interested in exploring his findings, visit his website at www.geert-hofstede.com. You can even evaluate the cultural distance between two nations.
Reference: Liu, Yang. East meets West. Taschen, 2015.