Cultural differences in the Chinese and American workplaces

Cultural Insights — By on December 28, 2009 at 7:25 am

Much has been written about the differences between the cultures of the United States and China, but what in practical terms do these differences mean? Hannah Seligson just wrote a business article for the NY Times about the growing trend of young Americans taking jobs in China, and about the cultural challenges that arise when people from two very different cultures try to work together. It’s a brief but insightful overview of the American and Chinese cultures and business styles. Here is an excerpt that deals with some of the cultural differences in the workplace:

It is imperative for Americans working in China to adjust, said Mr. Norman, who works on management and work force issues for multinational companies operating in Asia. “In the West, there is such a premium on getting things done quickly, but when you come to work in China, you need to work on listening and being more patient and understanding of local ways of doing business,” he said.

Ming Alterman, 25, a senior account executive at Razorfish, a Shanghai-based digital media firm, is the only American among 40 employees. He says Americans need to understand the importance of building so-called guanxi (pronounced GWAN-she). The word means relationships, but has implications beyond the obligatory happy hour, occasional lunches with the boss or networking. “In China, it’s really expected that you become friends with your boss and you go out and socialize in a way that doesn’t happen in the U.S.,” Mr. Alterman said.

The Chinese now rising in the work force were raised and educated in a system that tended to prize obedience and rote learning. Their American counterparts may have had more leeway to question authority and speak their minds. This can affect workplace communication.

When Corinne Dillon, 25, was working at a multinational company in Beijing, she noticed that her Chinese colleagues were sometimes hesitant about expressing their opinions, which she thought was rooted in views about hierarchy.

“Because foreigners are often in higher positions in companies, or even when they are not, there is sometimes an implicit respect given to them that makes Chinese people not want to directly disagree with them for fear of being perceived as impolite,” said Ms. Dillon, who is now director of sales and marketing at That’s Mandarin, a language school based in Beijing.

The difference cuts both ways. Ms. Zhao, of Blue Oak Capital, recalled her first experience working for an American at an American-run agency in Beijing. What her American boss perceived as directness left her feeling humiliated, she said. “I remember I was so embarrassed when my American boss told me he didn’t like something I was doing, right in front of me,” she said. “The Chinese way would have been much more indirect.”

Communication styles, Professor Taras said, can create workplace challenges. “Americans often perceive the Chinese as indecisive, less confident and not tough enough, whereas the Chinese may see Americans as rude or inconsiderate.” This, he said, “can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings, but also affect promotion and task assignment choice, and ultimately performance.”

There are numerous articles and books that explore some of these cultural differences. To learn more, one book you might check out is Encountering the Chinese: A Guide for Americans by Hu Wenzhong and Cornelius Grove.

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