The world really needs more intercultural communications

4 04 2009

I am currently working on the final piece of research I need to achieve graduate, and in the process of being chained to my computer, I came across an excellent example demonstrating the need for communications professionals that understand cultural difference, and the impact this difference has on communications and marketing.

First, we need to talk about the concept of “high context” (HC) and “low context” (LC) communications. Edward Hall introduced this concept quite some time ago. The basic premise is that cultures are either HC or LC, and this difference results in very different communications styles. LC countries, like Canada, the US, & Germany, require explicit communications. We want you to tell it to us straight, think using euphemisms to communicate is a bit of a cop-out, and we require constant, explicit downloads of information to get the point. For us LC’ers, the message is contained in the words, regardless of how or where the words are presented or delivered. HC cultures are the opposite. For them, the message is contained not in the words, but in the context of the message: is the person delivering the message important or not (this will clue them into whether the message itself is important or not), is the person delivering the message taking this seriously (i.e. are they dressed seriously or casually, is the message being delivered in an office or in the cafeteria, etc)? For HC’ers, like China and Japan, giving someone a large amount of explicit information may be considered patronizing. Additionally, HC’ers tend to already know alot about what’s going on without being told explicitly. The use of stories, symbols, and metaphors is strong in HC cultures.

Now that we’ve had a brief introduction, I’d like to introduce these two advertisements which illustrate the difference. Both are ads for international film festivals. The first ad is for the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and is directed at international film industry professionals. The caption isn’t included in the image below, but it is:”Where is the next crouching tiger and hidden dragon?” According to Brand Republic Asia, the ads ride on “Ang Lee’s award-winning film “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, to lure international film professionals to Hong Kong and scout for Asian talent during the film festival. The creative visuals show an animated jungle with various hidden animals, using the tagline “Where is the next Crouching tiger and hidden dragon?”, the Chinese proverb refers to undiscovered gems and talent.”

What I find fascinating about this ad is that the objective is to communicate to international film industry professionals, and yet the ad relies entirely on a Chinese proverb that many non-Chinese may not understand. It is a typically high-context ad, and would probably be very effective in communicating with Chinese film professionals. However, I question its efficacy in communicating with European producers and directors at Berlin, where this ad premiered.

HKIFF Trade Ad

HKIFF Trade Ad

The second ad is for the film festival I work for, The Calgary International Film Festival (which is great BTW). This is a postcard we put together to begin to communicate our positive impact on the city in which we operate. To be fair, we didn’t intend this piece to be intercultural per se, but we also admittedly didn’t think about the different cultural groups that make up our community and would therefore see it (whoops!). The point I want to make here is that it is an example of LC communication.

10 Things

10 Things

I think these two ads make a case for the value of intercultural communications professionals. Do you agree?


What a Global World!

5 11 2008

7:49 a.m.

It is election today in the US today, and we all paying close attention. We’re sitting right now in the dining room of the Huaxing hotel, eating breakfast, writing in our journals, and refreshing the CNN home page. Earlier this morning, we flipped through some English news programs on the Korean channel and the German channel. As Jessica pointed out, how global: Watching German TV, in English, in a Chinese hotel room, about the US election. It’s really early still , but Indiana and Kentucky have McCain ahead in about 10% of the polls that are reporting. I think I’ll barf if McCain gets elected.

12:49 p.m.

Things were a bit confusing for a bit. I was sitting in the classroom checking the CBC and CNN websites, and the polling stories seemed to indicate the race was still on. But then I checked a few stories, which had Obama as having won. I went onto Facebook: Katie was online in Baltimore and Delaney was online in Calgary, and both confirmed the media are reporting that Obama has won. A few of us went into the office and streamed his acceptance speech live. It’s interesting that the U.S. election hasn’t come up that much in our field studies or conversations with people here. The economic crisis is a big topic of conversation, but people seem less interested in the election.

SDNU Graduate Class

30 10 2008

After lunch we returned to the faculty of education to sit in on a graduate level class about Western civilization. This class was taught in English, as the students in the class are training to be English teachers.

On the way into the building, we saw some students pitching in to clean up the campus. I’ve seen that a lot — students washing the windows of the university president’s office, sweeping the campus, etc. I think this may be a part of their educational requirements, but it’s an interesting observation as it reflects the collective sense of pride that is important in China, and individuals’ contributions to the collective.

Students pitch in to keep SDNU clean

Students pitch in to keep SDNU clean

We arrived in the classroom of the class we were to observe about 15 minutes early, and there was only one other student in the class. We sat near him and spoke with him a little. He told us that he has been teaching English in Yantai for four years, and has taken one year off to return to school and upgrade his education. He will live here in Jinan for the year, and then return to Yantai, which is about a 7 hour train ride from here, when he’s finished the courses. We told him we were from Canada, which got an interesting response. He said he thought Kristen came from Canada, because a Canadian teacher who had taught him before looked like Kristen (I’m assuming he was speaking about race), but that he didn’t think Marcia and I were from Canada. I think Kristen had quite a different experience from me at times, as many Chinese people often wondered allowed where she is from.

Sitting in on the class was quite an experience! The class topic was Western culture and education, and today’s lecture focused specifically on the Middle Ages and Germanic culture. We sat at the back of the classroom, each of us in semi-cubicles with a computer screen, headphones, and a sound box/hearing unit. There were maybe 25 students in the class, and they were all dead silent even though the bell to begin class just rang. All but two or three students came into the class at the last minute, and the class began abruptly upon the bell ringing, with no introduction to the subject or lecture — the teacher simply jumped right into the lecture. The lecture consisted of the professor reading aloud from a document posted onto the individual screens in each student’s cubicle: riveting topics such as syllogism. One thing that I found to be strange was that none of the students took any notes — we were were the only ones that wrote anything during the entire class.

After about 15 minutes of reading from the screen, the professor asks his students if they have any questions for us about western culture. Nothing. He asks again a few minutes later, and then again, each request being met by his students with absolute silence. Finally, he jumps in and asks us to speak about religious beliefs in western civilization. I let Kristen and Marcia field this one.

It was certainly an interesting experience — it was a graduate level class, but the students seemed totally disengaged. The student sitting directly in front of me spent most of the time studying a map and text messaging.

Kristen expresses her enthusiasm

Kristen expresses her enthusiasm

A Conversation with Dr. Yang: Cultural Revolution, Generational Gaps, and Silence

30 10 2008

This morning Marcia, Kristen, and I went on our field study to the faculty of English teaching, and we met with professor Yang. It was probably one of the more interesting meetings we’ve had so far, because there was already a level of trust and a bit of a relationship built with the professor between RRU and also some of the students, as he’d taught us before. It was maybe the first meeting we’ve had where I haven’t felt we’ve been being fed corporate lines – maybe it’s different too because he doesn’t work in a business, but rather is a professor.

Once again, the most interesting answers came from questions we didn’t think would illicit information. For example, I asked him why he decided to become a teacher, and his answer included a personal account from the cultural revolution. He explained that in the past, university students didn’t decide what jobs they wanted, and neither did they apply for jobs. Rather, they were assigned jobs. He explained that in senior high school, he was one of the best students in his class in English. However, during the cultural revolution it no longer was judged as good to speak a foreign language, and Professor Yang was moved to the countryside where he lived and worked in a factory for maybe 3 years. He then joined the army, and he was a member of the army for about four years. He was good at English still, but this wasn’t judged as a good thing – this was during a time when the Americans and Russians were enemies of China. After four years in the army, he left the army in the 1970s and he took the national university entrance exam in 1978, the first year for which it was reinstated after the cultural revolution. He went to university to study English. He was assigned to be a professor and has been teaching at SDNU since 1980. He said it is unusual in China for people to have had so many different jobs, like he has – it is actually similar to Confucius’ experiences. I think its so interesting that all this information was gleaned from seemingly such a simple question, and one that may have elicited a very canned answer if asked in North America.

Once again, our conversation revealed the profound sense of history and time that exists within this culture. For example, professor Yang explained how different it is with the younger generation in China, because those born in the last 20 or even 30 years that didn’t experience life before the reforms, and those who are young today and have only experienced life in a capitalist society. This is similar to the observation I had when we watched the China Rises 2 documentary earlier this week – there are profound generational differences right now in China. For example, the documentary portrayed a party member in her 40s or 50s, a Beijing University student trying to join the party who was 18 or 19, an outspoken and avant guard Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, and a young gymnast training for the Olympics. The difference between the party member, the artist, and the student was like night and day, as would have been their experiences in relation to politics and the cultural revolution. Whereas Ai Wei Wei watched as a child as his father (an intellectual and at one time the Poet Laureate of the communist party, during Mao’s time) suffer and be degraded during the cultural revolution, and went on to be a student leader during the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the party member would have been older during the revolution and the student wasn’t yet born and wouldn’t have experienced Tiananmen Square. It seems as those in their 30s and 40s today are those that remember and are the most angry – Ai Wei Wei, an outspoken critic of the government protected by his status as an American Citizen, is an example, but I can also think of a few overseas Chinese in that age group who hold similar opinions. I think this generational difference is very influenced by politics, but permeates almost all aspects of life.

While there is large political and technological generational gap,  a strong sense of the long history of Chinese culture and civilization seems to be common to all generations: Chinese are taught from a young age to be modest, cautious, careful, and to think of the people around them and relationships between people (including the hierarchy and context). The role of heroes and heroines from history to convey moral tales and lessons is much more prevalent than in the west – textbooks, books, tv, movies – all of these cultural artifacts include a sense of time and history. Whereas in Canada we think about the present and future, in China, people are focused most primarily and deeply on the past and the present. He mentioned how it is important to learn from other countries and take best practices, but that because of the number of people in China and the long history and traditions, it will take a long time for China to change in any way. I think if there is anything that I will take away from this trip, it is that China will change, but it will take a long time and will change when it is ready to change. No one can rush China.

My last observation from this morning is more an observation about my own culture, and how terrible we are at dealing with silence. There were several incidents when we heard an opening and assumed he had finished answering a question, and we jumped in to ask another one. It was interesting, because I think he found it quite disconcerting as I think he was actually taking a pause and formulating his thoughts. Kristen asked a great question of him related to how insightful the answers we often receive are – we ask a seemingly banal question of a Chinese person, and receive a Yoda-like answer such as “knowledge knows no bounds.” Kristen asked if this was related to the linguistics of Chinese, which I think perhaps it is given the poetic-nature of many of the phrases and characters and prevalence in everyday language and usage of characters for “heaven”, “heart”, and “love.” However, I now wonder if it is also related to the simple fact that Chinese people take so much longer and are so much more thoughtful in formulating sentences, thoughts, questions, answers, where as in our culture, we simply rush to fill the silence with whatever first comes out of our mouths.

Embracing Discomfort: A Trip to the Bank

30 10 2008

Last night we had our mid-residency pub night. However, because we’re in China and there are no pubs, we instead had a mid-residency KTV night.

Mid-residency pub night

Mid-residency pub night

Some of our SDNU buddies get down at KTV!

Some of our SDNU buddies get down at KTV!

KTV was fun, but overall yesterday was a bit of a trying day. We went to a bank for our field study, and the experience was touch for us as a team. Knowing that some other teams had had challenges at the bank probably didn’t help, as we went into the experience somewhat apprehensive about our ability to succeed. Thankfully, Marcia’s buddy Cindy was available to come with us and act as a translator.

We arrived at the bank at around 11:15, and were prepared to spend a few hours working before lunch and then a few hours after lunch as well. Cindy introduced us to the security guard at the front of the bank, explaining who we are and why we had come. He went into the back of the bank to inform his boss that we had arrived, and returned to let us know that no one could see us now, and likely no one could see us in the afternoon either because the branch was undergoing an inspection from head office all day. We thanked the security guard and asked him if it would be alright if we simply observed what was happening and speak with some customers. Again he went to back of the bank, returning to let us know that no, we couldn’t speak with customers. This was very deflating, especially knowing that the previous student group that had come to the bank didn’t have great success either. On the one hand, we felt quite a bit of pressure to stay and make the best of it — Zhenyi had made it pretty clear that we are in fact welcome at these businesses and should stay and observe no matter what. On the other hand, I think our own cultural values and assumptions kicked in immediately: we didn’t want to impose; we didn’t want to do something that would jeopardize SDNU’s relationship with the bank; and we were very uncomfortable doing the opposite of what the bank had told us to do (leave).

We went back to the classroom and called Zhenyi, who happened to be with the husband of the woman who was SDNU’s contact at the bank. He called his wife, and let her know that we were coming back to the bank to observe and speak with customers. And so back we went; we were getting settled to observe the workings of a Chinese bank when, low and behold, we were ushered to the other side of the bank to speak with a man who was introduced to us as the “president” of the bank. It turned out he was actually VP of the branch.

We ended up chatting with him for a while. It was interesting, because after he left and we went to lunch, Cindy commented that what he said was very political — he spoke a lot about how wonderful the bank is, the sense of family that exists between the tellers and their customers (“they grew up in the same town, and many of them have known each other for a long time”). I didn’t entirely understand what she ment, but didn’t really think twice about it until after lunch, when we began speaking with customers, many of whom had only been with the bank for a few years and had no sense of personal connection to the bank employees. He was towing the corporate line.

He wasn’t there in the afternoon, and the head office people had left as well, so Cindy suggested we speak with some of the bank employees, even though the VP had specifically told us not to in the morning. At this point, the team’s level of discomfort really increased — some people advocated following Cindy’s advice because, as a member of the culture she probably had a better idea than we did as to what is appropriate and what isn’t. Others felt very uncomfortable with “breaking the rules.”

I think this is an interesting observation about the difference between high context and low context cultures. Cindy immediately understood that when the VP left, the context changed and what may have previously been inappropriate was now ok. The low context RRU students didn’t understand the context had changed, and felt uncomfortable doing anything outside what we’d been specifically told was allowed.

It’s All About Family: A Trip to Jia He Life Insurance

28 10 2008

This morning we went to Jia He Life Insurance for a group field study project. We arrived at 8:30, just in time for the company’s morning meeting, which was held in a small rectangular room. All the staff stood in lines and rows, with about 5 rows of staff running from the front of the room to near the back of the room, where we were standing. It was funny to watch, because all the Chinese staff were in perfect rows and lines, and the foreign students (us) were all over the place, in a formation only slightly resembling a line or row. The meeting consisted of a few different components: first they held hands and sang the company song; the lyrics I could understand had something to do with working together like family. Following the song, there was a daily weather report, and then staff from each department reported about their department and goals, etc. Finally there was a short speech. The theme of the speech varies daily. For example, there will be a speech about the branding activities for the company 3 or 4 times per month, and other times they’ll discuss other pertinent topics. I wondered if there are Chinese idioms that refer to individualism or “sticking out” from the crowd, because everyone seemed to be dressed almost identically. They looked like a cohesive group rather than a collection of individuals.

Morning Meeting

Morning Meeting

Following the morning meeting, we went into the boardroom with the director of banking insurance (Director Wan Hong Tao) and the human resources manager (Wan Yu Jing). They gave us each a short presentation about the company, and then opened up the discussion to questions and comments. This is where a lot of the information came out.

We learned that insurance is a very competitive industry in China and in Shandong province, with about 26 life insurance companies competing against each other for business. Altogether in Shandong, Jia He has about 165,000 employees, selling individual life insurance, group insurance, and insurance through banks (cross-selling). This was Director Wan’s area, and he noted it is extremely competitive because all of the insurance companies compete with each other for the banks to allow them to sell their product within the banks. His job is to oversee the process involved in getting a deal with a bank, and then training a team to go in, work within the bank, and sell to the bank’s clientele.

We spoke extensively about HR practices at the organization. There are essentially two hiring streams – one is to hire from the general public, and the other is to headhunt from other insurance organizations. Retention is low and poaching common, but even so Mr. Wan and Mr. Wan spoke about the family-like atmosphere at the company as well as the company vision and values, which are displayed on the wall.

Their vision is to build a team to create the most valuable brand, most cultural influence, and build a team with harmony and family connections.

Their values are two-fold: Firstly, they have a overarching set of values for the organization. These values are innovation, efficiency, energy, and simplicity. The next set of values are personal values they encourage their staff to live by and realize individually. These include responsibility, loyalty, benevolence, and gratitude to the company, family, and clients. Mr. Wan mentioned that it is not enough to speak about these vales – it’s not what’s printed on the wall that matters because it’s easy to say these words and have them be empty. What is important is that leaders help the organization and staff to realize these values by modeling them and creating organizational regulations that support the vision and values. For example, the company is involved in philanthropic activities. They recently went to Qufu to realize the value of benevolence by participating in a national activity to make donations to seniors that lost their families in the Sichuan earthquake. They also regularly send staff out to orphanages and seniors home to donate their time. I thought this was interesting because it shows the level of importance that is placed on seniors in this culture as well as on children. They also have regular group activities, such as Table Tennis, Basketball, Mountain Climbing, etc. to ensure the family atmosphere is prevalent. Another interesting shift in China is that the country has gone from a 6-day work week, down to a 5.5-day workweek, down to the current 5-day work week, with the government trying to introduce mandatory vacation time now.

We also spoke about how the company handles issues with staff, especially since there is a large emphasis placed on harmony and family. They actually have a very long probationary period at the insurance company – this is something I also noticed at the hotel. They encourage the team members to develop their own diversity and individuality, but this can sometimes lead to conflict. When there is conflict at the beginning, they first observe the person over a probationary period of 3-months. If everything is good at the end of this time frame, the person will get a long-term contract. However, if there are still problems, then the probationary period will be extended another 3-months, and the person may be moved to another division. If at the end of 6-months there are still problems, the person will be dismissed. Interestingly I noticed that he didn’t speak about what they do when conflict arises between people with long-term contracts, other than noting that there are annual performance reviews and a person’s salary will be decreased if there are problems until they are terminated.

At the company, the most important thing is sales. Within banking insurance sales, the groups sell in teams of about 15 sales people, which explains the apparent conflict between competitiveness of sales and the collectivism/family-like attitude of the culture and company.

Because of the competitiveness of the industry, they view HR as critical to business success. They look for employees that have good virtue and are of good quality. Once they are hired, the next most important thing is training and professional development. Their retention strategy is to offer reasonable pay, put the right people in the right position and offer promotions and laddering, supplemental benefits (short-term disability, additional pension), and create a sense of family and belonging. They award top-performers and have an annual party called Jia He Eve. They require staff to be loyal to their clients, their leaders, and employees.

In Mr. Wan’s sales team, they also have an afternoon meeting every day once the banks close. The meeting is for three purposes: Solve problems, develop skills, and learn new knowledge. When there are problems, the team will discuss the problems and then brainstorm ideas for the company to support them more.

A few observations I had at the insurance company: For one, I noticed that to a Westerner, it often seems as though Chinese people are not talking about the real point at hand. For example, if they are asked a question that a Westerner assumes has a yes or no answer, the Chinese person will not answer it with a “yes” or a “no,” but rather will start by talking about the reason that the answer may be yes or may be no, or tell a story to illustrate the answer, or provide some background information. Of course, the person never actually says “I am going to tell you a story to illustrate the answer”—they simply do it and its up to the person listening to put the pieces together. All this is done naturally as the answer to the question, and the person may never actually say yes or no!

Another observation I’ve had is that many Chinese talk about the size of China in justifying things that are different from the west. For example, once when I asked one of the buddies if the one child policy still existed in China, she explained that it did by using phrasing such as “Because China is such a big country with so many people….” Similarly, when Mr. Wan was speaking about the benefits package offered by the government in China as compared to the BC provincial government benefits a classmate mentioned, he used the exact same phrasing. I think this has to do with the sense of collective responsibility to the country over individual wants or needs. The national regulations mandate that companies must pay a pension, health care, maternity, unemployment insurance, housing fund, and worker’s compensation. It is up to companies to pay more.

Another observation was that if you ask non-direct questions such as those about names, symbols, and stories, you will often get the most interesting answers with rich information. For example at Jia He, I asked the meaning of the name of the company. He gave a very long answer, explaining the name is based on a Chinese fairy tale about the man who discovered the rice plant and began agriculture in China, thus saving the people from famine and beginning Chinese civilization. He then told us that one of the employees had just had a son and named the son Jia He, which really illustrated just how the value of family and company is realized. Similarly, I noticed that one of the branding posters displayed in the hallway had three generations of one family sitting together, with the grandfather holding a stylized red carp and the entire family sitting in front of a large Chinese knot. What a conversation starter!

Reflections on Week One

26 10 2008

Keeping in mind that I’m going to have to summarize my learning in an assignment, and given the fact that so much happened this week, I want to summarize lessons and insights from Week One:

  • Numbers matter in China. The more people present, the more important the event or meeting. Consider this when planning business trips in China, and try not to go alone.
  • Foreigners doing business in China need to invest more time than they probably think is necessary to build relationships. Time is valuable because it allows you to build relationships.
  • In China, intuition is more important than facts and figures, which are looked upon with much more skepticism than in the west. At the beginning of a business relationship, business will progress at a snail’s pace until the people with whom you are dealing have a good enough feeling about you to progress. Rather than trying to demonstrate credibility by citing facts and figures (i.e. sales, revenue, projections) at the beginning, use stories, personal anecdotes, and patience to build the relationship and your credibility. If choosing a place to conduct business, consider the context and environment: does it convey the level of importance of the meeting, does it create a good feeling?
  • Being goal-oriented is a cultural value. In China, don’t begin with the end in mind, but rather begin with the present in mind! This means, don’t get right down to business, and don’t being with direct, goal-oriented questions. Consider all the aspects of a western business that revolve around goal-setting, and prepare to reconsider how to approach these aspects of the business when dealing with Chinese people and organizations: HR and performance management, strategic planning, and measures of success will all be affected.
  • Expectations for participation and engagement are culturally determined. Again, this has a huge impact on HR, multinational teams, and multinational management.
  • Confucianism is a way of life for Chinese of all generations, meaning big decisions may be made through a lens of impact on family and one’s duty. This is another factor to consider in terms of HR policies, performance development, and assignments abroad. Family and duty are often considered over individual preference.
  • North American culture is like pizza; Chinese culture is like dumplings.
  • People from high context cultures, like China, require less direct “downloads” of information than people from low context cultures, like Canada. This can create enormous confusion and frustration when people from both sides of the equation work together. For example, the presentation from the IBM GM wasn’t linear, jumped about, and didn’t follow the logic of a low-context communicator. Consider the informational needs of both groups in meetings, formal, and informal communications.
  • Local knowledge and relationships are more important than international experience when doing business in China.
  • Developing a feeling a team is an important motivator for Chinese staff. Working, eating, and playing together is common, expected, and appreciated by staff. Consider this cultural norm when managing intercultural teams with Chinese staff.
  • What may be considered rude in Canada (such as answering a cell phone in the middle of a meeting), is acceptable in China. Try to turn-off your “rudeness” filter.