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My Chinese CEO looked at me and yelled:” This is completely wrong! The data in your presentation is wrong!” I tried to tell him that the data I had been using was data provided by him, and that both data and presentation had been verified by him prior to my giving my presentation. Then I looked at my management colleagues. All, but one, were bowing their heads, looking down – at their feet, their notebooks, their mobile phones. Only my Danish colleague looked at me. And he looked just as astonished and shocked as I felt.

This was in 2008, before I began to learn about how our cultural backgrounds influence the ways we think, speak and act. Having spent 11 years in China, working with and learning about cultures through my work with management teams and organisations, I now understand a lot more about the situation back then.

The art of doing business in China has always been beyond seating arrangements at banquets and presenting and receiving business cards at meetings. China is an enormous country and very diverse. China in the South is different from China up North, and you will find cities with a population and wealth the size of a European country and places where people live a life in poverty. Add to this a country with a very long and rich history and country that has undergone an enormous transition for the past 20 – 30 years. So, I find it difficult to generalize a culture or cultural behaviour for a country with such diversity.

I sometimes hear: “I know China; I have been travelling to China and doing business there for the last xx years. I get it”. Well, I don’t always get it. I have lived and worked in China for 11 years. Throughout all these years, I have lived among local Beijing residents in a small hutong. I have worked in different regions of China, and I have travelled to remote locations. The organisations I have worked with have also been quite diverse. During this process I have learned a lot about Chinese culture and customs. And the key thing I have learned is that I still have a lot to learn. Some things are the same, some things look the same, and yet they can be very different. 

I keep thinking that the longer I live here the more I understand about myself and my own culture. I am not a China expert. I know how to navigate in the Chinese culture on behaviour, leadership, collaboration and communication. Yet, I sometimes fall into some of the same pitholes I train business leaders to avoid when I do cross-cultural training and coaching. And I do sometimes encounter cultural behaviour that is not like the available research on cultural behaviour. The art of decoding cultural behaviour is like the art of decoding human behaviour and personality: we are unique individuals. What cross-cultural training offers you is an understanding of yourself; an invitation to be curious and to investigate where you may differ from the culture you work and live in and with, combined with tools to help you learn navigate across cultures. There are not fixed answers or formula for working or living cross-culturally, the best you can do is: 1. don’t assume, 2. be aware and be present, 3. be curious – so, ask questions and share your own culture, and 4. reflect and learn.

Some say:“You just need to understand the language, then you will be ok”. Is it about language? Yes and no. No doubt that speaking and understanding the language will get you somewhere. That said, Chinese is a rich and refined language, and the culture is a so-called high-context culture, meaning: what is said is not always what is meant. Looking into the context of a situation and reading between lines is the skill needed to understand what is meant. And in this context you find culture. Language alone will not do the trick.

Others may think: “Why not just hire a Chinese to do your business? S/he speaks the language, understands the context and has the guanxi to get access to and close those deals.” Yes, a great idea. And with a Chinese business partner, it is still worthwhile learning more on the cultural part, so you can understand each other and grow the relationship for mutual benefit, of your common understanding, relationship and business.

Culture is about people, our attitudes and behavior – occasionally a source for frustration but, essentially, the core for the power of diversity.