A couple weeks before our trip we attended a full day event to introduce us to our Beijing itinerary and to go over some details about what we could expect while we were in China. The Chinese investment team walked us through details about how the Chinese economy had grown over the past 30 years, and why the Beijing trip presented such a unique opportunity for all of us.

The Canadian advisors spoke of their experience of doing business in China. This was also extremely helpful, since none of the companies chosen for the trip had any significant real-world experience dealing with Chinese business practices or culture. From them, the over-riding message was:

‘You don’t know what you don’t know’. 

As Westerners, our view of China is largely limited to assumptions and conclusions based on vague (and often inaccurate) media impressions rather than any direct experience. We are not taught much about it in school, and being a closed society for generations didn’t exactly enable widespread familiarity. 

Be that as it may, we were about to deal directly with Chinese culture and it was clearly time to get any preconceptions well out of mind. The advisors offered examples of businesses – including major US corporations – that had utterly blown it by approaching potential Chinese partners with what could be described as a ‘wild west’ mentality. Answering opportunity with arrogance was something I think we were all keen to avoid, if at all possible. 

No room for the Marlborough Man.

The most enlightening presentation of the day was the last one, delivered by a Chinese Canadian business expert who detailed some of the aspects of Chinese communication styles and information processing that had developed over the past 5000 years.

Terms like Guan Xi, Filial Piety, Face and the cultural implications of Confucianism were discussed. Comparisons were made between western terms like, ‘the early bird gets the worm’ and its Chinese counterpart, ‘the first of the flock is the first to get shot’.

We even spent some time poking around ‘Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Theory’; a method devised to identify systemic differences in national cultures. 

One of the slides included in the presentation offered a particularly deft illustration of the essential difference in communication styles; one that we would remember and refer back to over the course of the next few weeks and, as it turned out, years.