DMI Views - Managing Chinese Cultures: Breaking The Taboo and Stereotypes


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DMI Views - Managing Chinese Cultures: Breaking The Taboo and Stereotypes

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DMI Views - Managing Chinese Cultures: Breaking The Taboo and Stereotypes

  1. 1. DMI News & Views - Viewpoint - Relearning to Innovate Home > DMI Publications > News & Views > Viewpoints Viewpoints Managing Chinese Cultures: Breaking The Taboo and Stereotypes By Mel Lim & Wendy Mills Search ... It all started with the Oreo cookie. My sister and Business Insights Consultant, Wendy and I, were casually discussing how Kraft introduced the iconic American cookie to China in 1996, and it took them almost a decade later to reinvent the round biscuit into a wafer, and the recipe to fit the Subscriptions Chinese market. We wondered, why a company as big as Kraft, with all its resources and means, took 9 years to adapt a product? Submit News Our conversation truly was not about the Oreo wafer versus Oreo cookie, but it was about a statement I made. I said "Chinese people do not like sweet Mel Lim cookies! Have they (the Westerners) seen our desserts? One Chinese team member on Krafts team would have saved them millions of dollars!" Wendy and I paused for a moment and thought, "Are we stereotyping ourselves?" While there are many publications on Chinas cultural determinants: economic policies, politics, race/ethnicity, language, acculturation, gender, age, religion, socioeconomic classes and education, we feel that managing cultures spans beyond reading and observation. It can only be mastered through breaking sensitive taboos and stereotypes, while ultimately understanding and respecting traditions. Wendy Mills So today, we are going to share with you 8 main "cultural" points. We maybe ostracized by our own Chinese community after this article, but if it helps companies shave off a decade worth of research, money and time while promoting cultural tolerance? Why not! 1) The Art of Saving Face – To give, save and not lose it If you can master the art of Saving Face, you will have no problem doing business with the Chinese. Its essential to establishing trust, respect, and simply to exist in the professional work environment. Here is an example. In the US, if your boss is in the midst of a presentation and has forgotten his lines or does not know an answer to a question, as a team player, you would naturally want to step up and help out with the presentation right? In China and certain parts of Asia, you should probably think twice, as an act like that would have caused your boss to lose face! You would have directly insulted or embarrassed him and you will probably be reprimanded. So learning when to say, what to say and who to say it to is crucial to building a successful relationship with your Chinese counterparts. Also, know your place, especially in the conference room. Sit according to your rank. It may not mean much to a Westerner but to a Chinese, the head honcho usually sits in the center or at the head of the table. 2) No Means Yes; Yes Means No – Cultural nuances My late father once went to dinner with my Caucasian husband and business partner, Joe. I had informed Joe that when the bill came, insist on paying, even though my father would fight him over it. Joe asked why it had to be so complicated - I said its just the way Chinese people handle this issue. But his next question was legit. He asked when is it that you know for a fact that YOU really have to pay for the meal?1 of 4 6/26/12 6:37 PM
  2. 2. DMI News & Views - Viewpoint - Relearning to Innovate Two scenarios: 1) When you are the host or when you are the eldest (or more established) at the dinner table; 2) At business functions, insist on paying as good will, and to show that you are not this cheap, calculative, foreign business person to work with. It shows that you are open and respectful of the relationship you are about to build with your new client. 3) Eat The Birds Nest Soup – Traditions and superstitions Chinese superstitions are very complicated. Even my sister and I would sometimes cross check each others "facts," before we proceed with certain actions. In Asia, most business deals are done over meals (similar to how business in the US is carried out on the golf course) Hence, it is best for you to do some research and be prepared - use chopsticks, drink some hard liquor (ie. XO Hennessey) and eat some foods that you may have seen on Fear Factor. That way when you are served some birds nest soup (birds regurgitated saliva nests) you are aware that its a delicacy served only to the respected honored guest and its not to gross you out. 4) Malcolm Gladwells Rice Paddies – Do not underestimate societal class "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich." - Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers In Penang, Malaysia, where we grew up, there is a famous street called Gurney Drive where it is known for its "hawker" food vendors making the best local kway teow (noodles) and bbq octopus. While it may look "interesting" to many foreigners, it may also look like a street filled with squalors - People squatting by the side of the road, eating and drinking, cleaning pots and pans, while cars and scooters zoom by. Joe once asked me, "How can you people EAT like this?" Well, Joe, this scene may not be your Four Seasons, but guess what? At the end of each night, when the street vendors wrap up their stalls, they may drive home in their expensive Mercedes Benz and their kids attend the best universities in the world. That is the epitome of being Chinese. Understanding societal classes is important. We often think that only the upper middle class can afford luxury goods but in Asia, a so-called squalor may have unknown spending power that may shock you! 5) Ni Hau Ma – Language Would it be okay if I didnt know how to speak, read or write English? Especially if hired to help American businesses innovate? It would be unspeakable! So when doing business in China, either learn the language or hire someone that does. 6) No we dont all look alike! – Know your geography and races More times than I can count my name has been confused or mispronounced. I am a Lim, not a Kim, Lee or a Lin. I am not Filipino, Japanese, Korean or Taiwanese. I am Chinese. When you are doing business in Asia, knowing your countries and geography will help save you some "face." The number one mistake is to mispronounce your clients name and tell him that he reminds you of that Hawaiian friend of yours when in fact he is from Beijing! 7) Bamboo and Johnny Walker Blue Label – Business etiquettes "The (Chinese) culture is about manners, as much as it is about business." There is a scene in the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, where Jacob Moore played by Shea Lebouff, had just stolen the limelight from his co-worker, impressing a group of Chinese investors to fund his fusion energy project, by dishing out Mandarin, and extending a $500.00 Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch to the client. Jacob also sends the bamboo flowers, which symbolizes continued growth and prosperity. Now to many, that may just be over glorified Hollywood script writing, but to us, that is just how business is done in Asia. Business gifts have to mean something good. For instance, do not give a Chinese client a George Nelson designer clock. You may think its the perfect gift, but to the Chinese, you just presented a gift that tells them to kick the bucket!! Do your homework, before you try to impress your Chinese counterparts. 8) Karaoke – Happy Hour Ahh, the dreaded scenario of happy hour with your Chinese clients... seriously, to me its the most2 of 4 6/26/12 6:37 PM
  3. 3. DMI News & Views - Viewpoint - Relearning to Innovate exciting thing in the world. YES! I do karaoke and enjoy a glass of XO from time to time, but its also because Ive been trained by my Chinese entrepreneur parents since I was 9 years old, the ways of Chinese business. Three things you can do if you are absolutely not a singer or a drinker. You could bring a co-worker that can handle his/ her liquor, and still maintain his/ her professionalism, or do not drink but accept to sing a song or two, or reject both but be the one to buy the drinks! You have to somehow figure out how to go give "face" to your clients generous invite. Either way, pick your battle wisely, but if you accept a happy hour invite, make sure you bring your mojo with you. About the authors: Mel Lim, Principal / Creative Director, MLD Wendy Mills, Business Insights Consultant Mel Lim and Wendy Mills have been managing cultures their entire lives. Growing up in a household with a Roman Catholic father, a Buddhist mother, an Orthodox Jewish aunt, a Muslim uncle and auntie, and now with their spouses both Caucasian and African American, they are accustomed to quite colorful holiday dinners and religious festivities. Join the Discussion Please add your thoughts and comments about this article. Constructive debate is welcome, however, personal attacks will be deleted. Showing 5 comments Sort by Newest first Subscribe by email Subscribe by RSS Pat Saison 3 months ago My mom had a story about two relatives, known as the cheapskates. They live in Gulangyu, an island off of Xiamen (Fujian) and had to take a boat across. In the olden days, the boat fare was 2 pence (or whatever the local currency was). The two cheapskates happened to get on the boat together, and each worried about what to do--should he pay for the other? Politeness would so dictate, but just the thought made the heart thump. When they got to the dock, without hesitation, each pulled out one pence and walked off. Like Reply Linda Lin 3 months ago Excellent article. And I love how you had "8" points to share. Nice touch. I must say, as a Chinese American, I wouldnt mind a George Nelson clock any day -- in fact, I have one and it was given to me as a gift. :D Now, in my "circle" of family and friends, if we ever give a clock, we ask the recipient for a penny in return so the clock is "bought" and not "given" ("song"). Like Reply Mel Lim / MLD 3 months ago Hey Linda! The penny thing applies to shoes and perfume too! If you buy shoes for someone, they may walk away from you...and if you buy someone perfume, it may make the relationship sour. 1 person liked this. Like Reply3 of 4 6/26/12 6:37 PM
  4. 4. DMI News & Views - Viewpoint - Relearning to Innovate Angela E. Yeh 3 months ago Great article. Mel & Wendy do a great job explaining the delicateness of these traditions and how and when to abide by them. Being American born Taiwanese myself this article even reminds me of some of the more traditional cultural etiquettes I forget about, like knowing not to give a clock as a gift. And I recall situations where insisting to pay took many turns before someone won the paying battle. Like Reply Mel Lim / MLD 3 months ago Hi Angela - Thanks! Ahhh.. the restaurant paying battle scene is always a true delight to watch. When we were growing up, we would watch our aunts and uncles duking it out, while saying "You have to give me face to pay for dinner..." while the other party would say "You are NOT giving me face by wanting to pay..." and our parents would just excuse themselves to the restroom and settled the bill quietly. After all, they were the eldest at the dining table. Like Reply Add New Comment Optional: Login below. Type your comment here. Image Post as … This article appeared in the March 2012 edition of the DMI News & Views. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of DMI. Feedback on DMI Viewpoints and article proposals are always welcome! Please email jtobin(at) Copyright © Design Management Institute All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the copyright holder. Email this page to a colleague4 of 4 6/26/12 6:37 PM