Bridging the cultural gap? Or how to prepare for Chinese meetings in winter.

mai 20, 2015
Before moving from Belgium to China in 2008, I never quite understood the significance of cultural differences. That was until one cold Thursday in December a number of years ago. I was on my way to a meeting with the IT director of Geely, a large Chinese automotive company that took over Volvo. I was hoping to make a good impression. Chinese winters can be frigid, and it was freezing outside. As we reached the company headquarters, I decided to leave my winter coat in the car. I’d put on my best suit for the meeting, and I wasn’t going to let a winter coat ruin my appearance!

A freezing first impression

But as I walked through the offices on the way to the meeting room, I noticed that all the workers were sitting at their desks with their coats on, hunched over their computers wearing fingerless gloves. As I entered the meeting room, I saw that the windows were fully open. The IT director walked in, all bundled up in a warm coat and scarf. I realized that I had made a huge mistake by leaving my coat in the car. It was unbearably cold!

I crippled out of the room after enduring three freezing hours in there. In Europe, forgetting to take off your winter jacket at a meeting is a faux pas, but this certainly did not appear to be the case here. This was when I first began to understand that China really is different. The differences in behavior and thinking influence even the most mundane and routine day-to-day activities.

The meaning of ‘Yes’

Every country has its culture. To add to that, each company or business also abides by its own organizational culture. Each group has its own set of habits, values and norms that they consider to be the standard. From a European perspective, for example, an answer of “yes” or “okay” is taken as agreement. In China, however, a “yes” answer can mean no more than “I hear you.” It does not necessarily mean that your business partner or client has agreed to what you have proposed.

Lenovo, one of Delaware Consulting’s customers, experienced this difference in communication firsthand when integrating the IBM PC department. “When we disagreed in meetings, we would keep silent”, said Chen Shaopeng, president of Lenovo’s China operations. “But the Americans assumed we were agreeing.”

The importance of understanding each other

The crux of the matter is that the standards of normal behavior vary from culture to culture. Whether it’s bad etiquette to keep a winter coat on during meetings, or what constitutes agreement, it all depends on our different cultural perspectives of what is acceptable and what is not. With globalization, however, the potential for interaction between groups that adhere to their unique sets of beliefs and practices has increased. As a result, it has now become more important than ever to learn to understand and handle these differences.

4 tips to build bridges between different cultures

From my experience in China, what bridges the cultural gap and ensures successful projects

1. Face-to-face meetings

Some consider this too much, too early, especially if it’s only during the start of a new project. But face-to-face communication helps break the prejudice and builds up trust between people. Many feel this might be too much of an investment early on, but relationship building is valuable in the long term, and can result in overall cost reduction for the project.

2. Good agreements

As a Belgian expression goes: “Good agreements make good friends.” This principle works well in the international context. Make the content of all your business discussions clear in the meeting minutes and be detailed with the action points. It’s crucial that parties involved do not walk away from meetings or conference calls with different perceptions of what has been discussed. After all, you can’t be sure that all attendees have been paying 100 percent attention all the way through. This can easily result in missed points or details that end up getting lost in translation. If not managed well, this is an easy recipe for miscommunication, conflict and ultimately project failure.

3. Respect and trust

People tend to trust leaders who are open and willing to listen to new ideas and opinions. It does not necessarily mean that you have to agree, but making the effort to understand the perspectives of others demonstrates respect and builds trust.

4. Celebrate as a team

No matter how small the success, it is still a success. Reminding the team of these little achievements can be motivating and spurs people on to concentrate on the positive. It unifies the team and builds momentum for the larger successes ahead.

The topics above are a first start in building bridges in between cultures, it seems easy and logic, but often we see that these basic understandings are not taken into account, thus leading to misunderstandings and frustration between people. Projects, in the end, are a people business. But if you already understand that there is a cultural gap to take into account, you are already in the first step to a solution.


Author: Bert Van Genechten. You can connect with Bert on LinkedIn.