Becoming a Chinese Businessman

Sitting in the kitchen of a high-rise apartment building with a group of Chinese businessmen, discussing the opening of a series of restaurants in Australia, I was reminded of a reading from a cross-cultural communications class I took at university.

It was about a Chinese company and an English company that had wanted to form a partnership. A Chinese delegation had been sent to the English factory—then everything had gone to shit. Each party had different cultural norms and expectations and unintentionally insulted the other. In a post-observation interview, researchers concluded that neither party was satisfied with their encounter. Needless to say, a partnership was not formed.

It boiled down to tiny things, such as the English company holding a formal welcome at a conference table with the Chinese delegation sitting on one side and the English on the other. The Chinese group confided in the researchers that sitting in a mixed formation would have been more polite, presenting both sides as equals rather than creating a “them” and an “us”. The English, meanwhile, were upset about the Chinese delegation’s apparent lack of interest during their tour of the factory. (The Chinese were confused as to why they were even getting a tour of the factory, rather than Big Ben.)

My career since university has been built around cross-cultural consulting for Japanese businesses in Sydney. I help them navigate the differences between Japanese and Australian audiences, customers and products. One day, as a result of professional connections, a Chinese businessman requested I do the same for his business, and not long after I was put in charge of the menu for a new restaurant, which included tasting all the dishes. This meant four straight days of dining with my partners and their families and invested friends.

Sitting at the dining table, I overthought my every action. Everyone was on their phones, taking photos of the food, Snapchatting, messaging friends, and I wondered if it was okay for me to do these things, too. Everyone spoke Mandarin, which I don’t speak (though I did learn and then forget how to say “slow cooked”), but being attuned to the minutiae, small things like the fact that they preferred sending voice messages to texting stuck in my mind. At one point there was also a group FaceTime session with the boss’s grandmother in China. I didn’t even know at which point it was okay for me to go home. In hindsight, the worst part may have been that I was a female and my new partners, the owner and the head chef, were both male.

I know Japanese business. That’s where I specialise, where I’m comfortable. I know when to speak out and how to do it politely. I can recognise when I’m being treated equally and when I’m being dismissed. In meetings with clients, if I have a male co-worker with me, the clients will usually address the male rather than to me, even if I am the senior. I have to push myself into the conversation, and I know how to do this. I knew none of that in Chinese business custom. I couldn’t tell if I was being treated equally, simply because I didn’t even know what equal looked like.

In the apartment during the four days of menu-tasting were the restaurant owner and the head chef, who were male and very obviously in charge, the chef’s wife, who also was cooking, the chef’s young female apprentice, the owner’s sister and wife, and myself. I noticed I received attention that the other women did not. I was asked to eat first, and at the end of the day when the chef came to the table, he gave me a beer. The boss and the chef also had a beer, but no other woman did. While I sat and gorged myself, the women cleaned up after me, refilled my glass and generally made sure I was comfortable.

Was this treatment befitting a Chinese businessman? Was this a sign I was part of the team? Or was this hospitality afforded a guest? I would have offered to help, too, but I learnt a while ago that putting myself on the same level as the people cleaning up after me can be a way of making myself look weak. Any doubt about my ability to work and lead jeopardises my business, so, as in the past, I continued to eat and drink—if the Japanese businessman doesn’t help, what’s to say the Chinese businessman I am trying to emulate would? My biggest obstacle, then, is what not to do. I have opinions I would like to voice, but how I go about voicing them is unknown to me. This new area is one that calls for discretion. I can’t just copy the people around me.

The Japanese style, at least in emails, is to pen a few introductory paragraphs before vaguely bringing up a concern, then burying it with a few more paragraphs—a compliment sandwich. The fluff paragraphs indicate my respect, and that I want to continue a good relationship, that I’m grateful to be doing business with them at all. Similarly, when speaking, there are Japanese-specific gestures and body language. Which couch you sit on in the waiting room, who enters the elevator first—everything has a place in respect and hierarchy.

I had to unlearn some of my Australian business manners to become business-fluent in Japanese. I was pulled aside once, after what I thought was an average meeting, and asked concernedly if I was unhappy at my job, if there were any issues during the meeting. It turns out the fact that I hadn’t been smiling or laughing perturbed my Japanese counterparts. It’s expected that female staff smile at all times and laugh at the slightest hint of humour to make the men feel important.

I explained that if I was laughing in an Australian meeting to appease men’s egos, I would never be taken seriously. Never mind that I was one of the most senior staff. My female boss once sent out an email to some clients explaining that it’s just my “focus face”—but having people talk behind your back is also expected in Japan. Everyone has two faces, public and private. Someone who cannot preserve a distinct line between the two is not considered honest, they’re considered brutish and uncivilised.

These were difficult concepts to grasp, but over time they’re something I’ve gotten used to, even if I never fully accepted parts of the Japanese business cultures I encountered, from casual Australian-based business conducted in cafés to interpreting for high-ranking Japanese officials who demand the highest level of honorific speech. Taking on another business culture, though, I wonder what I might need to sacrifice to make it work.

Learning a new style of conducting myself feels like going back to being a teenager, finding my individuality all over again—and I still sometimes struggle to assert that individuality in the context of Japanese business dealings. When I answer the phone in Japanese in front of my Australian friends, I almost always get a comment about how my voice changes. It assumes a higher pitch, a “cutesy” tone, an enthusiasm that my regular laid back Australian voice lacks. I catch myself sometimes getting stuck there when I’m talking to Australian friends, and when I have an off day or didn’t sleep enough, I find my Japanese colleagues irritated when I do not adopt the expected degree of enthusiasm. They at times think I am not acting with enough urgency or seriousness.

There is only so far an assumed identity, let alone one that transgresses gendered cultural norms, can take you. As someone who has never thought of herself as timid, shy or scared of confrontation, becoming a Chinese businessman has already taken me outside of my comfort zone. In my dealings with Japanese businesses, it’s still sometimes hard to go outside my comfort zone because my comfort is predicated on values and ideals that mean a great deal to me. And after all, if business practices where people must conform to gendered expectations are never challenged, one final question will always loom: At what point will I be taken aside and told it was fun while it lasted, but now it’s a job for the real men?

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