What sort of cultural awareness training do you need to work in China?

Published on January 18th, 2022

Let us start with an example. You’ve found the perfect partner for your company in China and they’ve invited you to take a tour of their factory before signing the contract. After the tour, you went to a local restaurant. You sat where you liked, made small talk and joked with everyone around you. You felt comfortable enough with them to point out some minor details in the factory that weren’t directly related to the business. When you meet the team the following morning, to your surprise, they are not ready to sign the contract and you go home without the deal.

So, what happened?

It turns out you were blissfully unaware of the cultural nuances of working with Chinese organizations. What you thought was a casual conversation during dinner with Chinese work acquaintances, actually wasn’t – it was part of the vetting process. It was also a big hit to the manager’s mianzi or face – a social concept that connects honor, dignity, prestige, and self-worth.

What you lacked, and what could have saved you the additional six months needed to reestablish the relationship with that company, is proper cultural awareness training.

If you prefer video over text, we made a short under 5 min video for you:

What is cultural awareness training?

Cultural awareness training is the process of becoming aware of and understanding cultural differences. Through awareness training, you gain what is called cultural intelligence, or to be more precise, the awareness, knowledge and skills you consciously use to effectively overcome existing cultural differences.  

To gain cultural intelligence, and ensure the best possible results, you need to go through 4 stages:  

  • Stage one: gaining awareness that you’re wearing your own cultural lenses through which you look at other people, their work, and their culture
  • Stage two: developing an understanding of other cultures, their values, and worldviews
  • Stage three: acquiring the necessary respect towards the cultures that differ from yours
  • Stage four: developing practical skills

These kinds of training help you develop a detailed understanding of other people’s culture, its influence on communication, and even gain skills and strategies that ensure the best possible outcomes. A group of researchers at the School of Marketing, University of Sydney, concluded in a study that exporters who are sensitive to their partners’ cultures will face fewer barriers to effective communication and are more likely to achieve long-lasting successful business relationships. 

China is increasingly seen as an underexploited market, and naturally organizations all over the world are showing more and more interest in doing business with partners from China. And naturally, that has let do an increasing demand for understanding the unique culture. 

Now let’s take a look at a few key concepts that you need to be aware of to work more productively in China or with Chinese business partners. 

What do Westerners need to be aware of in Chinese culture?

There are many cultural differences between China and the West, so competent cultural awareness training must take you through all of them.  

Chinese tend to be considered group-oriented, with a collective preference. It is important to group cultures to consider the impact actions and decisions will have on the whole community. Chinese culture is characterized by a loose orientation to time – a Chinese businessperson takes time as a suggestion, not an obligation in contrast to the US tight-time orientation. 

J. Child and M. Warner wrote in research they’ve done for the University of Cambridge, Culture and Management in China, that nations have their logic of social and economic organization, and that this is difficult to distinguish from their cultural heritage. That is the case when we talk about their relationship towards hierarchy, whether in business or somewhere else. While most of the world’s companies today have flat structures, in China everybody traditionally knows their place in the vertical structure and follows the rules that come with it.  

The research also showed that the foundation of Chinese respect for hierarchy and the family social collective are based upon the norms expounded by Confucius and legal codes such as those developed during the Tang Dynasty. It is worthy of note that some of the latest hi tech Chinese companies are much less traditional and follow a more American structure – however, even then, you will occasionally bump into hang-ups from the traditional cultural profile. 

One thing that many people overlook is the way Chinese people foster relationships and connections called guanxi. David Smith wrote in one of his papers that guanxi involves the cultivation and maintenance of relationships with individuals, where both parties recognize that, as part of the developing relationship, a personal obligation is also developing. It consists of several elements: ganqing (emotional attachment), renqing (reciprocal favor exchange), and xinren (interpersonal trust). 

A concept related to guanxi is called mianzi, or face, and it is equally important within the Chinese social or business context. Mianzi is a manifestation of a desire to retain social stability, place in hierarchy, respect, prestige and not to be embarrassed in social situations. Individuals can lose their ’”face“ by being directly criticized by someone, or showing emotions publicly. 

Other cultures have similar concepts, but in China, misunderstanding mianzi can have serious consequences.  

If you suspect you will have difficulties navigating through these cultural points, or you already had while working in China, you should consider Country Navigator’s Cross Cultural Awareness Training for you and your employees. Partaking in it will ensure that your company will become more competitive in the second-largest economy in the world, and create stronger and longer-lasting relationships with your employees.  

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