When Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal takes a business delegation to China in October, pleasantries and gifts will be exchanged. Both sides will toast to each other and talk openly about working together.
But, as is often the case in China, an underlying conversation will be taking place, spoken in nonverbal cues, that could determine how much they really end up cooperating.
Since China opened to foreign investment three decades ago, many American companies have made profits there. It’s less clear how many have made friends or how much productivity has been lost in the ongoing dance of cross-cultural work.
Each year brings news stories of foreign firms sparring with the government -think Google – and the landscape is littered with smaller companies that felt entitled to a place in China’s gold rush but received a rude awakening once on the ground.
While much has been written about how expatriates view China, the authors of “When We Are the Foreigners” set out to understand what the Chinese think about working with American colleagues.
They gathered “war stories” from interviews with Chinese employees and asked experts to glean cultural lessons from eight case studies, said Orlando Kelm, who co-authored the book with husband-and-wife team John Doggett and Haiping Tang.
As the U.S.-China relationship enters into a new phase of maturity, the authors hope it will help some firms skirt the seemingly endless pitfalls that have entrapped those that have gone before, said Dr. Kelm, associate director of business language education in the Center for International Business Education and Research at the University of Texas.
They started with a central misconception that led to the title of the book.
“Our perception is the world is the foreigner and Americans are the local guys, and even when we’re in another country we still think of the local guys as the foreigners,” Dr. Kelm told GlobalAtlanta in a video interview conducted viaSkype.
Even after fixing this faulty outlook, myriad issues can arise.
Chinese people are much less individualistic than Americans. They tend to define themselves in the context of close relationships. Something as simple as showing outward appreciation for an employee – a situation outlined in the first chapter – can cause a serious misunderstanding.
Americans are also very direct, while the Chinese tend to shun confrontation and address intra-office problems in a roundabout way to avoid shaming co-workers, especially those above them in the hierarchy.
“Americans are very bold and blunt and direct in the way that they do everything,” Dr. Kelm said. “We want it now, we want dates, we want details, and for other cultures, that’s just harder to do.”
Many foreigners make the mistake of thinking that growing English proficiency in China will decrease the lapses in communication. While it’s true that most foreigners’ day-to-day interactions will be in English, non-native speakers sometimes fail to grasp nuances of the language.
Learning Chinese or having a trusted associate that speaks the language can be invaluable in gaining important information and understanding what employees are trying to say beneath their limited English.
“Even if you have a limited understanding of Chinese, it helps you a lot,” said Dr. Kelm.
The interviews revealed a few lessons for companies that would tap China’s growth. The get-it-while-you-can mindset of young Chinese executives is reminiscent of the dot-com era in the U.S. Just because the country has thousands of years of history doesn’t mean that people will take a lot of time to get things done, Dr. Kelm said.
Still, American firms shouldn’t just be in China for a quick buck.
“There is a sense of show me that you’re here for the long haul. They want to see that the partner they’re going to work with is more interested than just a quick in and a quick out,” he said.
Though the concept of guanxi, the Chinese word for relationships, is addressed throughout the book, Dr. Kelm said the authors steered clear of using it too often, noting that it has become somewhat of a cliche that many foreigners mention but few truly understand.
The book also shows that cultural engagement is a two-way street and that up-and-coming Chinese managers are doing their best to adapt to American ways of doing business, he said.