It was 2006, and I was attending one of those “Doing Business in China” conferences in Beijing. It was rather humorous at times, watching the variety of reactions—the newcomers wide-mouthed in amazement, drinking-in every pearl of wisdom; and the experienced veterans, deliberately acting unimpressed, sending off invisible signals that said, “Been there, done that.”
The conference ended with a round-table discussion between five expats who all had many years of experience in China. It was fairly standard fare. Discussions of how important guanxi is. Warnings about the dangers of joint ventures. Stories about being ripped off, and advice on how to avoid being caught in the same situation.
The audience was a mixture of both expats and Chinese, and after awhile, I couldn’t help but note in my role as a cross-cultural specialist that the discussion was decidedly one-sided. When it came time to ask questions, I was the first one chosen. I asked, “We’ve heard lots about the problems that expats have had with Chinese, but I see a lot of Chinese people here today, shouldn’t we also be discussing problems Chinese have had in doing business with expats?”
Honestly, both the moderator and most of the panel members seemed rather nonplussed, but one of them, to his credit, responded immediately that this was a very good point, and raised the question to the audience, if any of the Chinese participants had examples of expats making serious mistakes.
I don’t think anyone expected the vehemence of the responses. One Chinese man stood up and introduced himself as a successful businessman who’d built his own company. Twice, when he’d worked with expats on various deals, he’d introduced them to connections that he had carefully cultivated over the years. These were people that he’d invested a great deal of time and energy into building real guanxi; but when the expats met with them, they responded and acted in ways that made them upset, and did significant damage to his own relationship with them. He said that he no longer trusted expats enough to introduce them to his own important connections.
He was asked to give more concrete examples, of exactly what the expats had done wrong. He said that at dinner, the expats took the seat of honor, which should have gone to the Chinese host, causing them to lose face. Or they’d tell derogatory stories about bad experiences with Chinese people. Or they’d argue and get angry with others over particular issues, rather than resolve those issues through intermediaries.
He was asked to give more concrete examples, of exactly what the expats had done wrong.
Another Chinese participant told a horror story about an American who spoke Chinese, and decided to communicate on his own, rather than use an interpreter. This resulted in many misunderstandings that were all due to his failure to communicate or understand effectively what was being said.
Many others stood up to share similar stories. About how Germans wanted to have detailed step-by-step plans for doing everything before they’d even get started, when the reality was that regulations and situations in China change so quickly that by the time they were halfway through the project, they’d have to throw out many of the initial plans and start over from scratch. Why couldn’t foreigners be more ‘realistic,’ and understand that doing business in China isn’t like doing business in their own country?
One of the best moments, to me, was when one of the panelists stood up and indignantly protested that it was unfair and impolite to characterize all foreigners as being idiots; apparently entirely unaware of the irony that he’d just spent the better part of an hour saying the same things about Chinese.
The most important lesson to come out of that, in my opinion, is the importance of being aware of both sides of the issue. It’s easy for expats in China to recognize the problems that we face. Heck, get two or three businessmen together having beer at a bar, and more than likely conversation will turn to their various grievances about the difficulties of doing business in China.
But how about, some time, sitting down and having beer with some Chinese businessmen, and giving them the opportunity to share their perspective? Let them do some bitching about the foreigners they have to work with, and the stupid mistakes they’ve seen them make. More than likely, every expat in China, even the very experienced ones, have made mistakes that they weren’t even aware of; and if you’re not aware of it, odds are you’re going to repeat it.
This isn’t about some sort of politically correct nonsense. This is pragmatic business sense. Being more aware of the mistakes that you are making, and how to avoid them, will significantly improve your own results. This is true in every area of business, including cross-cultural business relationships.
John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.