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Beyond the good manners your mom taught you

In the early years of Chinese reform, if you sat down to breakfast at a hotel in Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu, it was common to overhear Western business people (often quite loudly) lecturing their Chinese counterparts about one or another aspect of “how business was done” or what life was like in the West. All the talking went in one direction as so many Chinese citizens were eager to learn about the ways of the free market and the West. Everyone was an expert. Walking down the street, it was common to be approached by a perfect stranger wanting only to practice their English. They were glorious years for the pioneers who arrived first in China. One of us vividly recalls a particularly lurid example of what we call “West-splaining” at breakfast in a Shanghai hotel as a particularly exuberant US businessman described his extensive gun collection to a group of wide-eyed Chinese executives. Slowly but surely in the intervening decades that dynamic has shifted. Today, Westerners who want to engage effectively with China need to listen as much as they talk. A business school professor might as likely be treated to a lecture about Hayek as be asked a question about supply and demand.

Most Western travelers to China have a vague understanding of gudnxi and “face.” These are indeed crucial cultural touchstones. We devote a chapter to each of these concepts. However, as we shall demonstrate, they are poorly understood and mostly inappropriately put into action by foreigners. Four decades after China opened up to the West, the level of understanding of Chinese cultural and ethical norms among Western businesspeople remains dangerously rudimentary. The result is miscommunication and missed opportunities. While some areas of disagreement, such as human rights, may never be fully bridged, most areas of concern such as product safety and quality and intellectual property have a lot of room for improvement. And even progress on contentious subjects like human rights can be better accomplished with greater cultural understanding.

What accounts for the dearth of understanding among Westerners about Chinese culture and traditions? In part, it must be admitted that the subject is a difficult one. Chinese languages often prove very difficult for Westerners to master. The culture behind the language is even harder for many Westerners to grasp. While it is true that a foreigner might find it difficult to master the subtle nuances of the French language, society, and culture, Chinese culture and traditions are especially complex and nuanced in part because they date back for millennia rather than centuries.

Many foreign business leaders have diverse reasons and rationalizations for resisting a deep dive into understanding their Chinese counterparts. At a recent business conference of business executives discussing product safety and quality in their manufacturing operations, we shared our ambitions to write a book about the importance of understanding traditional Chinese culture to doing business in China and engaging with Chinese counterparts in regard to difficult topics, especially in business ethics. We were greeted with a host of objections. One executive alluded to the good manners his mom taught him. “I find that if I treat my Chinese counterparts with the respect my mom taught me,” he said, “that is what I need to be understood and do business effectively.” Another executive said that “plain talk” is what Chinese people understand and appreciate, and implied that he did not need additional training in cultural understanding. While we agree that good manners and plain speaking are virtues that will certainly translate with many Chinese counterparts, we were surprised to hear that these executives believed them to be substitutes for cultural understanding and sensitivity. One executive averred that cultural understanding was not that important because if Chinese businesses want to participate in global markets they would have to conform to the language and standards of international business. Again, there is a lot of truth to the view that uniform global standards form the linchpin of a globalized economy, but it does not make sense to us that this would be interposed as an excuse for eschewing attention to local culture and tradition. Both ideas, as the business ethicist Tom Donaldson has written, can be simultaneously true (Donaldson, 1996).

We don’t expect (or encourage) business executives who read this book to put aside the good manners their parents taught them or their plain good sense. Such virtues are as much valued in China as they are in the West. Nor do we deny that participation in the global economy will (to some extent) compel Chinese business executives to adhere to international standards. What we ask is that the reader maintain an open mind about supplementing their Western ideas about effective communication and interaction with normative concepts and foundational values drawn from a deep reservoir of Chinese tradition and culture that are needed to understand fully what guides and motivates their Chinese counterparts.

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