A Cultural Confusion Quiz

 The Culture Teller:

This month culture teller gives us a quiz on some potentially culturally confusing moments…


This month, let’s have a bit of a cultural quiz. You will be presented with several different situations, drawn from articles I’ve written in the past, and see how well you can: A) identify cultural conflict, and B) suggest how to deal with it.

Case Study 1 — You are invited to dinner with an important Chinese government official. On arrival, you are greeted warmly by everyone, and the host offers you the chair directly opposite the door. You thank him and sit down. One of the official’s assistants speaks good English, and you get along well, spending quite a bit of time talking and drinking. Later you tell a humorous story about a Chinese businessman who cheated you. After the meal, you turn down the official’s offer to drive you home, as it is out of his way. Later, the official’s attitude towards you seems cold. What happened?

Answer: We started you off with an easy one. Your first mistake was taking the seat that was offered. In China, the seat opposite the door belongs to the host. When he offers it, it is an act of humility, acting like he wants you to take it. But if you actually take it, you are saying that you are more important than him, and make him lose face. What you should do is argue with him, and if necessary force him to take the seat (which gives him face). While you may have had a great time drinking and talking with the assistant, if you failed to pay enough attention to the senior official, you probably caused him to lose face by making it seem that he isn’t important. The story you told will make most of the Chinese participants feel uncomfortable. At best, they’ll feel ashamed that something like that happened in China; at worst, they may feel you are hinting that you don’t trust them. And refusing the offer of a ride home? No problem, that was actually a good thing.

Case Study 2 — You’ve been hired as a consultant for a Chinese company, to help them tap into the Western market. After much research, you have a meeting with the Board of Directors, and present your findings. You describe problems you have identified, changes needed, and how to accomplish these changes. During the meeting, they congratulate you, but afterwards nothing happens—in fact, they actively resist your suggestions. What happened?

During the meeting, they congratulate you, but afterwards nothing happens–in fact, they actively resist your suggestions. What happened?

Answer: When you listed the problems, it is almost certain that some of the people present were responsible for decisions that caused them. By publicly identifying these problems, you caused those people to lose face. Second, you are an outsider and not in a position of authority over them, but still telling them what to do. For them to follow you is to acknowledge your superiority, again losing face. And third, even if successful, everyone knows these are your ideas, so you will get the credit for success, not them. How to handle this? Before the meeting, have a private one-on-one meeting with the main decision maker. Go through everything item by item, and get feedback. There will be some things he disagrees with; others where he suggests changes, or presents information differently. The final product will be different to where you started, and likely lacking things that you think important, but there will be plenty to take action on (and you can worry about the other stuff later). At the meeting, let the boss do the initial presentation, so everyone knows it is him making decisions (and getting credit), not you. After he’s done the presentation, you fill in the rest.

Case Study 3 – You are managing a Chinese team. You notice one of the people on the team is doing a great job, better than the others, so you publicly praise him, letting him know his efforts are appreciated. However, soon afterwards his productivity (and everybody else’s) declines. What happened?

Answer: We hear about how China is a collectivist culture, but people often fail to appreciate how this works. In an individualist culture, praising an individual will generally motivate them to work harder, and motivate others likewise. But in a collectivist culture, when you praise an individual on a team, it has the opposite effect. Others may feel that they did a lot of work, but only one person got recognition; as a result, they may cut back on their work. “If he’s going to get all the praise, then he can do all the work!” The individual praised may feel ostracized by the others, and cut back on his efforts, so as to not stand out. The best way to handle this is both praising and criticizing the team as a whole.

For solutions to confusions, send questions and observations to cultureteller@heredg.com