Cultural observation, tips anyone? (also, food pics)

Noodle dish

[Since I didn’t have any food pics from the previous night’s dinner, I added some food pics in this post, just for eye candy and any foodies out there. Once again, yum! This dish was actually spicy. You need to mix the noodles from underneath the get the heat to the top.]

Living in China for the next bit means there will be lots of cultural references and maybe a few stories. I’ve been here a few times already and I’ve focused primarily on work so aside from the time I went Ice Climbing in Western China, my observations haven’t been anything particular interesting. There’s pollution, traffic, they drive slower but loosely follow traffic laws, lots of scooters, people wear masks (necessity depending on the pollution levels on any given day), not everyone speaks English, characters are difficult to read and learn but necessary to navigate even a simple shopping plaza. Now that my office is no longer an offshoot to everyone else, and living here means acclimating to how to shop, find things, and most importantly pay for things means I’ll gain a deeper insight into this culture.

Chinese Hamburger

So far, I cannot pay for much without cash and nobody uses cash anymore. Everyone pays with digitally with their phone via WeChat or Alipay. While you can connect a credit card to some apps, China has been moving to a China Bankcard only system where those no longer work. When visiting, this can make transactions rather painful. Many smaller businesses discourage cash, though will begrudgingly take it if they have to. Larger more established businesses generally still manage cash just fine. Didi, China’s version of Uber/Lyft, will take the credit card, but only if one of the apps it supports payment from has it linked. In this case, WeChat allowed me to link a credit card and I could then pay for a DiDi through the WeChat app, but the WeChat app itself would not allow me to pay Merchants or friends through the app using that same card. Weird.

A business cultural experience is when interacting in a meeting. There is a deep respect for authority or seniority and therefore in business meetings, if someone more senior is speaking, or in this case, give a whiteboard talk (a very casual and off the cuff conversation for the purpose of educating someone or a group of people on a specific topic), Chinese attendees will not ask questions. Or rather, they will not challenge the speaker. So, the room is often very quiet with questions for clarification and always from the position of trying to understand the speaker. What this means is that as a speaker/presenter, you never really know if the room has absorbed the content. Asking if they have questions doesn’t suddenly spur people into speaking, though we are slowly westernizing our team to speak up more. The more interesting thing happens after the meeting.

Inside a Chinese Hamburger

After the meeting is over and people have gone back to their desks, small break out groups will start to form and an intense and often lengthy discussion about the talk will ensue. Since most of it is in Chinese, what I can gather is that the discussion centers around clarifications, questions relating specifically to work items, and general questions to be sure they understood the content. Everyone is trying to make sense of what they just hear, but humorously, the expert is not involved. They will look up to the next Senior person the group can’t agree or come to a sense of understanding on a topic, even suggesting that if something began to make sense by the group, they could potentially settle in a direction that was not actually intended by the speaker. It’s a subtle but important observation.

Reflecting on the States and what happens after a session like this, is most people have had their questions asked and answered in the room or follow up with the speaker/presenter out of band one-on-one. Most people go back to their desks and get back to work. Any mingling is usually held after for the expert by anyone hoping to keep them so they can get any further clarifications or questions directly before the speaker leaves.

The proper way to eat (what I called Mushu). Cut up the pancakes and fill small, single, sized bites. China gives you gloves with the dish just for this messy task. 🙂

To engage the audience further, here in the China office, it would seem that the speaker/presenter should make themselves available for more casual conversation around the topics by having a follow up conversation not long after the main meeting. So, if the meeting was before lunch, have the post meeting conversation or “office hour” to be available for any questions, after lunch or mid-afternoon. In our case, the speaker happened to come back to our neighborhood for another reason and was able to inject himself into the conversations, which turned out to be super effective to forward progress with some work items the team was consulting on.

There are many sites on the internet about business meetings in China but I have not found one that talks to this scenario. Anyone out there have experience with this and can offer your advice or tips? We have many more of these casual meetings than full-on formal ones and I’m very curious how we can navigate this cultural difference and maybe even learn a trick or tip to take back home.

About Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek is a rock climbing athlete and computer software/technology enthusiast.
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2 Responses to Cultural observation, tips anyone? (also, food pics)

  1. John Turnbull says:

    Not sure if it translates to the business side of things, but I was in China last year studying martial arts. There the Chinese way is for the sifu to demonstrate, and the student to imitate and practice with little detailed description and explanation, and some nudges if it’s clear they have misunderstood. It is a slower method of imparting information, but once understood the student knows it, as in a sense they have discovered it and made it their own.

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