Global economy 世界经济

This week I completed my second run through a business Chinese course (in Italian)- and I will use this as an excuse to talk about merging business cultures, and how learning “cultural differences” could actually generate few side-effects that could potentially affect your business activities in or with Chinese counterparts.

No, I do not claim that I already studied that book: simply, I did my “vocabulary expansion”, in the first run, to read and study the cultural and structural elements, and now I did a “pattern matching” on how is said in Chinese something that I learned long ago in English (and this included transcribing each dialogue by hand, to get used to the structure of business email messages).

Next step? As I wrote before, just doing a traditional course up to B2, and then apply to it the additional “patterns” that I learned through Headstart2 and other material (and, as soon as I will be abroad again, I will scout for additional Chinese learning material in other languages, as I did in the past with English); but before that… I have still to enter in my “Chinese words to learn spreadsheet” (that I started really in 2009, while in Brussels) part of the new words.

The funny part is that, being an Italian, I learned most of my business vocabulary in English- first working in the late 1980s and early 1990s with foreigners in Italy, then studying a couple of summers at LSE in London (of course- international political economy) and also in Sweden (intercultural communication and management).

So, it was interesting to get through this course that I picked up in a local library (the third in a series, starting in spring 2014 with the first one), and learn in Italian something that I knew in English, and, meanwhile, learn, expand, and update what I learned in late 1980s on the “technicalities” of international trade (at the time, for financial controlling and other number crunching activities- yes, including optimization).

But there is something that has been added by the last couple of decades of experience dealing with foreigners (mainly abroad, but mainly in Europe): I saw how the Internet and commoditization first of international trade (containers, air freight, etc.) and then of international travel (for people, goods, and, recovering and expanding to what has been available since the telegraph era, financial flows) impacted on the mere concept of “abroad”.

This week, I would like to keep my post short (well, less than 1,500 words), slightly more philosophical, and leave to you to re-read a couple of short articles that I posted here:
– Chinese companies abroad: the 国家电网公司 case in Brazil #wodeshudian
– #Guanxi 关系and #Mianzi 面子in the #XXI #century #wodeshudian #synspec

The reason why I shared details on my student experiences abroad?

It was just for few weeks, and away from the “credits” stress that university students usually bring along with them- hence, my fellow American students said that the acronym LSE meant “Let’s See Europe” 😀

In Sweden, only three of use were non-Scandinavians, but it was still interesting, as many of our classmates had worked or lived around the world, and our teachers were (except one) foreigners.

Nonetheless, if you have an environment that comes along with its own shared aim and constraints, but your background is quite diverse, you end up developing a “shared living code” that transcends your origins.

How does this apply to business China? Well, have a look at an old book from Sawyer on the history of “cloak and dagger” in China: it is more about the history of how China became a country and projected itself abroad for the last 3-4,000 years than about proto-spooks.

I keep reading articles (including this last book on business Chinese) whose authors write as if their counterparts were to have left China for the first time in their life yesterday- while this is not the case.

Since the late 1970s, just in Italy I saw how the only Chinese presence seemed to be the novelty of few Chinese restaurants, evolving by the late 1990s, after more than a decade of “import-export licenses” since the post-Mao reforms, in an expansion linked in part to profits worth reinvesting abroad.

Now, I will skip discussing historical details, etc- have a look at “The State of China Atlas”, that I referred to in a previous article.

While I was studying in Sweden, I challenged the assumption that “intercultural communication” is present whenever people are originally from different cultures.

My prior studies of past cultures, and eventual business experience abroad, showed me that it isn’t just a matter of 1 culture +1 culture =2 cultures, but rather 1 culture + 1 culture + shared environment + different constraints + 2 sets of purposes = between 1 and 3 cultures.

Leaving number crunching aside, this is what I mean: if A is from, say, Italy, and B is from, say, China, and their are doing business together in UK, after having been there few years, which culture do they belong to? Is adopting a “relationship+anglo-american negotiating with guanxi-mianzi” approach really meaningful?

In my view, sometimes foreigners operating abroad like to “play” on the “cultural bias” of their local counterparts, as this gives also some potential leverage.

So, while it might make sense for a Chinese company working from China with an Italian company in Italy to assume that both of them are an expression of their own business culture, just the choice to deal together should inspire thinking (better- having a look): have they experience outside their own market? And if so, are they really operating as Chinese and Italian companies, or mixing further elements?

On my blog and books online on Slideshare (see for links to both), I shared few stories from my negotiations just in Europe, where anyway this “cultural awareness bias” (i.e. the logic of thinking “I know that you are a foreigner, so I do what I assume that you would expect me to do”) generated misunderstandings, near disasters, and sometimes really funny episodes.

The funniest ones happened when both parties eventually understood that they were, in turn, making assumptions on how the others would have behaved and expected them to behave, twisting their own behavior to comply with what was eventually proved to be just a figment of their own imagination.

As you can imagine, this distortion made working only more complex- until, eventually, a shared (the 1+1= 3) “operational mode” was identified. “Getting To Yes” etc. are still worth reading, to avoid re-inventing the wheel.

I think that we need to study the cultural heritage of those that we deal with (and not just in business), but, frankly, I met in Italy Chinese in their 20s who have a better command of the Italian grammar and language than many locals- as well as a clear understanding of the local culture.

Therefore, what is the wisdom of business articles and books advising to behave with foreigners as if they had never had any business contacts abroad?

Time flies- and what was useful 20 years ago, wasn’t anymore a decade ago, and certainly isn’t today.

My experience working abroad and with foreigners? Read what you think that might be useful, but then never forget that any business relationship must begin with an analysis of your counterparts and their motivation and history.

Of course- I assume that you already did a “cultural due diligence” on yourself- pity those who start negotiating without understanding what they want to obtain from the negotiation 🙂

Meanwhile… have a nice week!

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