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  • Writer's pictureТимофей Милорадович

Harmony vs Clarity


Cross-Cultural Business Behavior

A Guide for Global Management

Case 4:

Canada’s largest importer of mobile phones and accessories, Nor-Phone Ltd. of

Toronto, decided to start sourcing accessories in China. From an industry contact in Chicago Vice President Pete Martin learned about Ever Sharp, a large manufacturer in Shenzen that specialized in supplying the U.S. market.

After months of email correspondence, Pete flew to Guangzhou to finalize the purchase agreement for 10,000 accessory sets. Discussions with Ever Sharp

proceeded amiably. Pete and the Chinese team needed a week of meetings to

agree on specs, packing, delivery, price, payment terms and the other details of

a large transaction.

Exhausted from these lengthy negotiations, Pete was really looking forward

to the signing ceremony. At this point, however, Pete learned that Ever Sharp

had not yet exported to Europe or Canada, and thus might not be familiar with

Canada’s bilingual requirements. So he explained that all goods sold in Canada

must have all product labels printed in both French and English.

This news caused the Chinese concern. They lacked French-language expertise

and could only work with Chinese and English, but did not want to admit this to

the buyer. So Managing Director Wang replied with a smile, “Mr. Martin, I am

afraid that supplying labels in French and English will be a bit difficult. This question will require further study.”

Pete Martin politely repeated that bilingual French/English labels were required by Canadian import regulations. “Please understand that we really have

no choice on this – it’s the law.”

Mr. Wang replied with a smile: “Mr. Martin, we will give your request serious

consideration. It will be quite difficult. We will do our best to solve the problem.”

Relieved to have settled this final detail, Pete signed the contract and said his

formal goodbyes to Mr. Wang and his team.

Three months later Pete got a call from the quality-control chief at Nor-Phone’s

warehouse. “Mr. Martin, we have a problem. You know those 10,000 sets that

just came in from China? Well, they’ve got bilingual labels all right – but they are

in English and Chinese!”

Pete Martin was stunned. Obviously Nor-Phone’s local quality-control service

in Shenzen had missed this very important detail in their pre-shipment inspection. But still, Ever Sharp had agreed to supply the sets with labels in French and English, right?

How would you explain to Pete why that did not happen?

When I used this case in a Global Management seminar for German and American managers, one German participant reacted to Mr. Wang’s indirect response by saying, “But that was a lie!” This was not the first time I’ve heard such a comment from deal-focused business people accustomed to straightforward language.

It is partly a question of priorities. When communicating with others the priority for Deal Focused business people is to be clearly understood. They usually say what they mean and mean what they say. German and Dutch negotiators, for example, are known for their frank, even blunt language.

Relationship Focused business people, in contrast, give top priority to maintaining harmony and promoting smooth interpersonal relations. Because

preserving harmony within the group is so important, RF people tend to carefully watch what they say to avoid embarrassing or offending other people.

Over the last 35 years I have noticed that the nearer the RF-end of the continuum a culture is located, the more vague and indirect people are with their language. On the other hand, the nearer they are to the DF end, the more frank and direct people tend to be.

Things can get confusing when the two parties in a negotiation come from opposite poles, for instance when North Americans and Japanese interact. To use a personal example, I had been negotiating with Japanese companies off and on since 1971 and can’t recall ever hearing the word “no.”

Many Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian negotiators seem to treat “no” as a four-letter word. To avoid insulting you they may instead murmur “That will be difficult” or “We will have to give that further study.” Popular variations are “Maybe” and “That might be inconvenient.”

Well-traveled Japanese are aware of their cultural preference for avoiding that naughty word. That is why Japanese politician Shintaro Ishihara titled his famous 1989 book, The Japan That Can Say No

Nonverbal Negatives

Many RF people also have subtle ways of saying no with body language. Some Arabs lift their eyebrows to politely refuse a request – the nonverbal equivalent of the American slang expression, “No way, José!”

In many cultures clicking the tongue with a “tsk, tsk” sound indicates a negative response.

Japanese and Thais often smile and change the subject or simply say nothing at all. I have found that extended silence during a meeting with East Asian negotiators often means, “Forget it, Charley!”

The Myth of the “Inscrutable Oriental”

This wide Relationship vs Deal Focused communication gap has given rise to the myth of the “inscrutable Oriental.”

But verbal subtlety and indirectness is only part of the story. To DF types, East and Southeast Asians seem inscrutable also because they hide their emotions, especially negative emotions. In these cultures showing impatience, irritation, frustration or anger disrupts harmony. It is considered rude and offensive. So people there tend to mask negative emotion by remaining expressionless or by putting a smile on their face.

Thais for example seem to smile all the time. They smile when they are happy, they smile when they are amused, they smile when they are nervous – they smile even when they are absolutely furious. Thai people smile because openly displaying anger would cause everyone concerned to lose face.

Communication and “Face”

In the highly relationship-focused cultures of East and Southeast Asia, both sides lose face when a negotiator on one side of the bargaining table loses his temper. The person who displays anger loses face because he has acted childishly. And by showing anger he or she has also caused the other party to lose face. It doesn’t take much of that to bring a promising negotiation to a lose-lose impasse.

As an unfortunate example, let’s look at what happened recently during a long, drawn-out negotiation in Vietnam. Executives from one of northern Europe’s largest breweries had been haggling for months with a local public sector company over the details of an agreement to build a joint-venture brewery in central Vietnam.

Towards the end of a particularly frustrating day the leader of the European team could simply no longer mask his irritation. First his face got red. Trying unsuccessfully to hide his impatience, the visitor clenched his fist so hard the wooden pencil he was holding suddenly snapped in half.

At that sound the room instantly became silent. A moment later the entire Vietnamese team rose as one man and stalked out of the conference room. The next day a three-line fax arrived at the headquarters of the European brewery informing them that the Vietnamese would never again sit down at the same table with “such a rude, arrogant person” as the head of the European team.

What to do now? Months of painstaking discussions had already been invested in this complex project. To save the deal the Europeans decided to send the offending manager home and replace him with a stoic type famous for his poker face. Some months later the agreement was duly signed, and visitors to central Vietnam can now imbibe lager and pilsner to their heart’s content.

When a Caucasian’s face turns red it is an involuntary response one can’t control. But you can take a break before something snaps.

While Westerners associate the concept of “face” primarily with East Asian and Southeast Asian societies, it is in fact a cultural universal. Southern Europeans may call it rispetto or onore, Anglo-Saxons refer to it as self-respect. Nowhere in the world do human beings enjoy rude and offensive behavior. We tend to feel uncomfortable when others are angry with us or when we are embarrassed, mocked or singled out for criticism.

People in relationship-focused cultures are often especially sensitive to face, perhaps because RF cultures are group-oriented. One’s self-image and self-respect depend very much on how one is viewed by others. That is why business visitors need to be especially conscious of how their verbal and nonverbal messages may be interpreted in RF cultures.

Miscommunication Across Cultures

The strong East Asian concern for covering negative emotion can be confusing to outsiders from deal-focused cultures. When we moved from Germany to Singapore in 1988, my wife and I decided to try learning Mandarin on weekends. To tutor us we hired Stefanie, a pleasant young woman who had recently arrived from Taiwan.

My lessons were interrupted late that year when my mother passed away and I had to fly back to Wisconsin to attend the funeral. Unfortunately, I had barely returned to Singapore when my brother phoned again to break the sad news that our father had now passed away. As you might imagine, this was a very difficult time for me.

It happened to be a Saturday when I got back from this second funeral, and Stefanie dropped by to enquire why I had missed so many lessons. Suffering from grief compounded by jet lag and exhaustion, I blurted out that both of my parents had just died.

A stricken look flashed across the young woman’s face for just a fraction of a second, and she gasped. Then Stefanie suddenly laughed out loud, right in my face, and proceeded to giggle for several seconds thereafter.

Now intellectually I was quite aware that people from some Asian cultures hide nervousness, embarrassment or severe stress with a laugh. I also knew I should have broken my sad news much more gently. After all, Stefanie was a Chinese person raised in the Confucian way. She revered her parents. The sudden realization that she could perhaps lose both of them almost at the same time must have come as a terrible shock.

Nevertheless my immediate reaction to her laugh was visceral. I felt as though I had just been hit hard in the stomach. Even though I understood rationally what had happened, I had difficulty relating to Stefanie after that incident. She stopped coming and we had to find a new Mandarin tutor.


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