Why Central Europeans often feel lost when working with Chinese partners
“They say “yes” but don’t keep the agreement” or “When we meet, we do not discuss business”. These and many other sentences our coach Eva Gaborikova hears very often when her Central European clients talk about their Chinese business colleagues.
Central European business people realize that Chinese companies and their representatives are important business partners. Only some, however, invest their time into cross-cultural understanding. Let’s have a look at the key areas which have a decisive impact on cross-cultural cooperation between Central European and Chinese business colleagues and partners.
The countries of Central Europe belong among the cultures which need relationships to cooperate with their colleagues, friends and business partners. They start with small talk to build a bridge and open a gate to business negotiations and cooperation. However, they do not expect a long discussion or require several meetings. After a few sentences they get down to business and relationships are being developed as business is conducted or a task is going to be accomplished.
When we compare Central European countries with China, we could see that dimension of relationships building has a distinctly different meaning. An essentially important factor in making a good impression with Chinese nationals is to build relationships and cultivate networks carefully (in Chinese: “guanxi”). Building a friendship has to come before business is done – trust and mutual respect are essential – and this complex and intricate networking system governs all business deals. Some may complain that this takes too much time, but we must understand that it contributes directly to business success. We can equate it to collecting poker chips… the more we collect by accepting hospitality, attending banquets and drinking sessions, offering and receiving small gifts, exchanging favours… the more we have in our hand to “play” with when the need arises.
Honour, prestige and social status
Honour is probably the most important part of the Chinese psyche, roughly translated in Chinese as “mianzi”. Saving, giving and receiving face is critical to the Chinese culture, the importance of which tends to be lost on typical Western cultures (though you will find something similar in Arabic cultures). It’s the social perception of a person’s prestige and honour – and the critical importance of nurturing that for business success. Causing someone to lose face will result in a loss of trust in the relationship. Having face means maintaining high status in the eyes of one’s peers and is a mark of personal dignity. Face must be gained and maintained in all aspects of both social and business life and it can be given, lost, taken away or earned. Causing someone to lose face by insulting them, belittling them, or even simply directly pointing out an error is considered to be a very serious gaffe.
The cultures of Central Europe are also described as indirect and non-confrontational when they deliver feedback or feel that there is some conflict in a team. They do not openly approach a problem but their behaviour, seeming indifference and avoidance signal that something is wrong. They do not have any special word to describe it but they expect direct cultures “not to be rude” and to avoid open criticism. However, when they are on the stage with their Chinese colleagues, they are lost. Their own filters do not work and are not sure how to conduct a professional discussion, agree on the terms of delivery or provide feedback. It seems to them that their Chinese colleagues don’t listen or react to their words.
Respect for hierarchy
In China, one must respect social, professional, and political hierarchy at all times. This is a Confucius concept dating back thousands of years, so it’s certainly not up to other cultures to try and change it, whether we agree with it or not. In Chinese companies, decisions are made from the top and you may find information-sharing is frustratingly limited based on rank and status. Respect for hierarchy takes precedence over the business interests, because once you lose the trust your professional relationship may never recover.
Where could be traced the origin of hierarchy in Central European cultures? People are sometimes surprised to learn that their current private and business behaviour also goes back several hundreds of years. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary were a part of Austrian Hungarian monarchy where noble titles and status determined behaviour and rights of people. Therefore, they respect the status of their boss, use university degrees on their business cards and do not overcome the frontiers of their competencies. However, when they face Chinese hierarchy, they comment it as “too much”.
Criticism and confrontation
As a rule, Chinese nationals prefer not to communicate directly, but rather tend to politely infer and allow others to make the same inferences, which eventually brings everyone to a common understanding. Aside from being quite modest the Chinese tend to avoid conflict and confrontation, since harmony in their culture is precious and essential. Praise is always more constructive than criticism, so we must be tactful with words we chose, especially when delivering what we perceive to be “constructive criticism”. “This report is crap” can often be perceived as “you are crap” – clearly not the way to go to make friends and influence people. You will find that a typical Chinese national may hedge the answers to questions if they know the listener won’t like the answer. Frankness is generally not appreciated by the Chinese and direct questioning is seen as rude. Politeness is more important than frankness, so they typically won’t say “no” directly – even when they, in fact, clearly mean “no”. Negative answers are to be avoided, as they can cause loss of face – the importance of which we’ve explored above.
Germans and Dutch businessmen as representatives of direct cultures often struggle with an indirect communication style of their colleagues from Central Europe. The Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians are quite direct when they discuss business procedures and projects. However, when there is time for feedback or an open clarification of disagreement, they switch their communication style to an indirect one and prefer to use statements “I’m not sure.” or “Maybe.” When roles change and they should negotiate or cooperate with their Chinese partners, they are suddenly “those” who are rude and impolite. Their feedback is direct, they deliver an open criticism and are impatient discussing alternatives.
While Western thought tends to be dominated by linear logic (for example, A+B=C), Chinese thinking allows for much more flexibility. The Chinese may start with A, jump to F, spend some time with B, have cocktails with K, and then eventually bring it on home to C. Chinese thinking is influenced by early philosophers, who saw a paradoxical balance of opposites in all things.
While Westerners tend to look for clear, black and white alternatives (option 1 instead of option 2), the Chinese may examine ways to combine both options in the interest of maintaining harmony and nurturing trust and good will. This is evidenced in so many examples in both professional and personal life. Signing a contract with a Chinese partner doesn’t necessarily mean negotiations are over; with changing circumstances, your partner may wish to alter the signed agreement, and this is seen as a perfectly acceptable and wise state of evolving affairs.
Flexibility is valued in Central Europe. However, it should be connected with the agenda, deadlines and contracts. Being in touch with Austrians and Germans for several centuries, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians belong among linear and monochronic cultures. Once they agree on some deadline or contract conditions, they expect everybody to follow it strictly. They spend a lot of time on precise wordings and usually check the exact meaning of words used in agreements and contracts.
Every game has rules which we should know to be able to play it. The same is true for cultures. To understand and cooperate with our colleagues we should know their values and norms of behaviour. Once we know them, we can start to play. We should, however, be open-minded and rethink our strategy after each step. The purpose of a cultural game is not to win but to have a fun, be happy, creative and move forward common projects and tasks.
Eva Gaborikova in cooperation with Helen Bannigan