Cultural Awareness

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OK, I’m probably going to really piss off AmCham after posting this, but screw it. I received an announcement yesterday for the following workshop:

Cultural Intelligence: Working Effectively in a Multicultural Environment

This workshop aims to improve the cultural intelligence of employees in multicultural work environments. In order to operate effectively in the workplace, it is essential that all employees are able to anticipate potential conflicts and have the skills to address issues which may arise due to cultural misunderstandings.

This kind of thing has traditionally annoyed me ever since I got to university in the late 80s and was forced, along with the rest of the student body, to undergo "sensitivity training." I am aware that there are folks who make a living giving this kind of advice to multinationals, and I don’t want to deprive anyone of their livelihood.

On the other hand, what’s the value here? Or to put it another way, I think it’s all a big scam. I do not consider myself an expert on multicultural issues, but in my experience here since ’99, practically all disputes I’ve seen between foreigners and locals can be avoided by giving people the following advice when they are hired, "Don’t be an asshole." Simple, yet effective.

I think China is a much easier country than many others for your typical expat to deal with. There are not a lot of cultural hoops to jump through, and people here are exceptionally forgiving if someone makes a faux pas. Compared to the Middle East or other parts of Asia, China does not really present a huge challenge. As long as you’re not an asshole to your co-workers, that is.

Are there exceptions? Sure. Foreigners should avoid use of euphemisms and culturally-specific references, although I think people should be smart enough to figure that out on their own. My old boss liked to allude to old TV shows and U.S. history, most of which references the staff didn’t get. That’s not a good practice, but it was a benign habit that certainly didn’t piss anyone off.

There is also the question of management style, and many "experts" will spend lots of time explaining how an expat simply will not be able to navigate a Chinese workplace and deal with passive-aggressive types unless they undergo special training. Bollocks to that. Again, this might help some folks, but I’ve found that with the magic of not-being-an-asshole, the passive-aggressive types on staff are often (surprise) nicer to me than to other expats in the office. And if I find that I continue having a problem with certain co-workers, then there is usually a reason for that behavior that has nothing to do with cultural issues.

As someone who provides advice for a living, I don’t want to dump on these consultant types too much. Everybody needs to earn a buck. Suffice it to say, however, that I will not be attending that particular workshop.

5 responses on “Cultural Awareness

  1. Will Lewis

    But Stan, it’s just so easy to be an asshole. Especially when you remember that the mono-culture of a communist country results in the production of only a single personality type: the kind you have to wave your hands in the air and speak really loudly at.

  2. FOARP

    Too true, I speak Chinese but otherwise behave pretty much as I would in an ordinary office back home. There’s no excuse for behaving like an arsehole, but being overly culturally sensitive can allow others to take liberties they would otherwise not be able to get away with.

  3. Terry

    here here! or is that hear hear!…. (friggin english on the blink)

    as a headhunter, i see this maxim all to often…

    assholes lose people all the time..

    little emperors, temper losers, dim disposition types, and the whole gamut of maladjusted anger types.

    and people like working for friendly caring nice bosses .. no mystery there… will even take a cut in salary for the better working environment.

  4. rens

    This is so very true. I see the weirdest training out here. How about Guanxi training? WTF? Yes you read it corectly. As if there is any difference with the good old boys networks we have created back home? Another one: training as to how to deal with “face”. Wow as if that is something typically Chinese. If anyone needs all these workshops here he or she is not going to succeed as they seem to have skipped a package of social skills in their development that would have made them succesful back home. But luckily there is a whole bunch of esoteric training BS and relaxation therapy training as well, some might even be useful.