When the American journalist and writer Peter Hessler (Peter is staff writer at the New Yorker and contributing writer for the National Geographic) moved to China to teach and write, he discovered that things were almost diametrically opposed to what he had been used to in the U.S. He was surprised, confused, often annoyed, sometimes amused. Most of the time he felt lost (‘During those early weeks I would have felt even more disjointed if it hadn’t been for the steady routines that surrounded me.’)
Here’s what he did. Every day after his Chinese language class (he found an excellent teacher) he picked up a newspaper and walked down to the local tea house. There he sat down and observed, until the people in his village started to approach this odd ‘waiguoiren’ (外国人, foreigner) and started to ask him questions.
Hessler: ‘I wanted to overcome these language and cultural barriers that made things so difficult at first. I believed that, next to teaching English literature, it was my job to develop a mutual respect and understanding that would allow me and my Chinese students and friends to exchange ideas comfortably.‘
Needless to say: he succeeded, and while your own exchanges with Chinese/Asian people are likely to take place in meeting rooms and under time constraints, Peter learned some lessons you could benefit from too:
1) A Chinese/Eastern smile can hide many emotions
People born and raised in China, or more broadly the East, are not the open books that many Western people are. A Chinese smile, for instance, often serves as a mask against deeper feelings.
Hessler: ‘Those smiles could hide many emotions – embarrassment, anger, sadness. When the people smiled like that, it was as if all of the emotion was wound tightly and displaced; sometimes you could get a glimpse of it in the eyes, or at the corner of a mouth, or perhaps in a single wrinkle stretching sadly across a forehead.’
So be prepared to be observant when you are talking to people from the East, and learn to recognize hidden signals.
2) Relationships and individuality are valued differently in East and West
Hessler: ‘The longer I lived in Fuling, the more I was struck by the view of the individual – in my opinion, this was the biggest difference between what I had known in the West and what I saw in China. For people in Fuling, the sense of ‘self’ seemed largely external; you were identified by the way that others viewed you. That had always been the goal of Confucianism, which defined the individual’s place strictly in relation to the people around her (…). Group thought could be a vicious circle: your self-identity came from the group, which was respected even if it became deranged, and thus your sense of self could fall apart instantly. There wasn’t a tradition of anchoring one’s identity to a fixed set of values regardless of what others thought.’
Though young people are finding new ways to bridge this ‘group thought versus individuality’ divide, the difference is still real and can lead to painful misunderstandings in East-West business settings. Find more background on some common mistakes we encounter as well as personalized tips here:
3) Be honest and transparent about your own traditions and values
Looking back at all those years he lived and worked in China (Peter currently lives in Egypt), how did he and his Chinese friends and students overcome the countless cultural barriers? How did mutual bewilderment eventually make room for mutual respect and understanding? What one element does he now single out as being crucial to the effort?
Hessler: ‘It required a great deal of patience and effort from everybody involved. But mostly it required honesty. Even if these moments of candor were occasionally unpleasant.’
In other words: it is all right to be different. As long as you try to see things from the other person’s side, and are honest and transparent about your own values and traditions. Read more here:
Peter Hessler is very observant. He does not judge. He understands the limits of generalizations (‘This not about China. It’s about a certain small part of China at a certain brief period in time.’) That makes him one of the best China experts I know, even if he disagrees (‘I am not a China expert but one of the foreigners trying to figure things out.’).
And he is a darn good writer too.
This article is part of our Expert Series in which we share valuable lessons from a list of business leaders, experts, and role models selected by Hanneke Siebelink. Find previous Expert Series articles here.
Hanneke is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Her current research focuses on how leaders build successful organizations by increasing the quality and effectiveness of collaboration across companies, functions, and cultures. She is particularly interested in China and East-West relations and is learning Mandarin Chinese. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.