By Irene Tieh (Founder, Cross-Cultural Connector)
After hearing several frustrating accounts of friends working in China or having difficulty engaging with their Asian employees and students, I was inspired to launch my cross-cultural communications startup due to my experience in dealing with clients from China, engineers from Germany, programmers from India, and partners from all over the United States with diverse backgrounds

Case Study: Amanda Goes To China

Here is the story of Amanda, an entrepreneur who went to China with a dream of expanding her business overseas. She expressed to me how challenging and frustrating it was to get things done on time and to get feedback from her local team. She said that she would ask her Chinese staff to do certain tasks and they would always agree only to disappoint her by not meeting her expectations and deadlines.

When I asked Amanda about her interactions with staff outside of work, she said that she refused to mix work with pleasure. She normally grabbed lunch alone and ate it at her desk so that she could continue working. After listening to Amanda, it was clear to me that she had no idea how different her American cultural behaviors were from the Chinese and how it was deterring her from launching a successful business in China. After 18 months, Amanda called it quits and returned to San Francisco.

I stayed in touch with Amanda and asked her if she would do anything differently. She paused for a while. Then I proceeded to ask her if she would dive into the ocean without learning how to swim? She said, “of course not but what does swimming have to do with her China business?” I told her that it was my analogy for why she would go to China without first understanding the Chinese language and culture prior to launching her business there.

In this increasingly global economy, it is quite common to meet and communicate with counterparts from all over the world. It is also quite common to not have enough time to prepare nor develop a cultural competency on how to communicate with these counterparts before such interactions occur.

Oftentimes, a cross-cultural encounter ends with a lot of frustration and misunderstandings like the one Amanda experienced. This can cost a business quite a lot of time, resources, and money. If your business relies on resources from other countries or opportunities to expand abroad, you cannot afford to make such mistakes.

In fact, knowing how to gracefully navigate visits to foreign markets and meetings with international counterparts can make a huge difference that will impact your long-term relationships and business opportunities.

Develop enough cultural competency to foster effective communication across cultures

Start by keeping an open mind and being aware of your own culture first. Here are some questions to help you define your own cultural parameter:

  • Consider what is typical of your own home country in terms of family, gender, food, leadership, ethics, communication style etc. Think about how a family structure or major institutions/corporations work (status of the President or CEO or head of the household in your country)?
  • What are the attitudes and habits that influence the origins and day-to-day inner workings of a family unit or institution? Do kids respect and obey their parents or elders?
  • What values and beliefs are revealed through these attitudes and habits? For example, about hierarchy or power?

Then compare your culture with another culture and you will find the differences and similarities that will help you better understand and respect that other culture. Most cross-cultural responses are based on our own reality and perspective. It is important to be open to other perspectives and to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Just the term ‘culture’ alone is vague and hard to define. One of many definitions for culture is the values and beliefs that guide social behaviors and interactions. Amanda might have gone to China with her generalization that Chinese culture is all about crowded places, chopsticks, rice, tea, communists and fireworks. However, these generalizations and stereotypes are dangerous mainly because a culture can have many subcultures and many exceptions to their own rule!

Take, for example, our own American culture – it consists of Latinos, Europeans, Asians, Africans, etc. Imagine if culture is like an onion that has an outer layer of visible behaviors. What makes culture hard to define is all of the layers you cannot see inside the core of the onion…the unspoken attitudes and norms hidden deep inside.

When Amanda first arrived in China, she failed to see past the behaviors of local Chinese staff and colleagues. Her team invited her to have lunch with them but she refused, opting to eat on her own. Coming from an individual culture like the U.S., Amanda had no idea that she offended her Chinese team who made several attempts to welcome her into the group culture but also respect her as their leader.

A lot of the relationship building and business negotiations are conducted outside the office during lunches or banquets in China. Furthermore, Amanda was so focused on tasks that she forgot how important relationships meant to the Chinese, especially between a manager and her staff. She never put in the time to get to know her Chinese team and to understand why they keep saying yes to her when tasks could not be done. She kept her own cultural preferences without attempting to embrace the culture she threw herself into.

Case Study: Naomi Goes To China

Unlike Amanda, Naomi wanted to prepare for her trip to China. She had hosted a Chinese delegation in the U.S. but realized that there was a level of awkwardness during this first encounter. When the delegates invited her to China, I helped Naomi define the dimensions of the American culture and compared them with China’s. She quickly realized the vast differences of these two cultures. We also went over etiquette (especially introductions and business cards) and some of the unspoken attitudes and rules like ‘face.’

Naomi returned from her trip and told me how she gracefully glided through the meetings without stumbling because she knew what to expect. In fact, because she took the time to know and respect her host’s culture, she was able to establish a level of comfort and trust. Her hosts, in return, introduced her to even more business partners and opportunities.

Bottom Line: Learn About Cross-Cultural Communication Before You Engage In Global Business

If you want to stay competitive in the global marketplace, don’t end up like Amanda or the captain of the Titanic who crashed into the iceberg and abandoned ship! Do consider looking into cross-cultural communication so that you can build a more meaningful connection and develop relationships and a business that will last for the long haul!

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
Photo credit: on Flickr.
About the guest blogger: Irene Tieh is the Founder of Cross-Cultural Connector and
USA College Connection. She has spent her lifetime bridging the East and West. She studied, traveled, lived and worked in Greater China, Europe and USA. Prior to moving out west, Irene lived in Shanghai and New York where she worked in the Art, Beauty, Education and Service Industries as a global marketer who developed and launched products and brands.