Part of the Momentum Works team were in China last week.
We had been invited by one of our joint venture partners in China for the Rooster year end celebrations, and of course, decided to stay the whole week to run through a number of projects that we had been working on with partners in Hangzhou.
Remember that Momentum Works had written an article on “Here’s why you need to listen to the unspoken word”? Well – here is a real encounter of culture context.
To put things into context, the Momentum Works team in Hangzhou are a diverse and cosmopolitan bunch (Singapore, India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, UK, China), and on average have lived and worked in 4 countries – sometimes with multinationals. So it seems that we would have figured out how to work with colleagues from other parts of the world.
The multi-national Momentum Works team ( with the obligatory dog in the upcoming year of the dog) exploring the West Lake in Hangzhou
And yet, we are observing, there are so many A-ha moments where we figure out that there was another difference in working culture (academics call it organisational behavior) between us and our Chinese partner.
Let me share a few interesting observations in organisational behavior (“OB”) that we’ve encountered:
What do you see?
When I have meetings with folks from both side, I prefer to see a document that can anchor discussions and help us make decisions. Colleagues from China prefer to see our faces, talk through the details and usually at the end of the meeting, you’re not very sure what had been decided.
I asked one of the partners in China. Why do you like to have video conferences without documents? He said, in Chinese culture, a single word can have multiple meanings, and that is why the Chinese prefer to verbalise the context through meetings. This is very different from a low context environment where people share information more freely, and give clear and direct instructions.
In my experience of working with people coming from different backgrounds, I’ve been taught all my working lives that assume is making an “ass out of you and me”. Well, I’m realising now that in homogenous countries where everyone comes from the same background, assumptions are part and parcel of the overall communication. My counterparts in China made so many assumptions and took on so many investigative tasks that could have easily been resolved if they had just asked me. I only found out about this during our heart to heart talk in China last week.
Which brings me to non-verbal cues. The Chinese live in an environment where a lot of things are unspoken, that is why body language is much more important that in other low context countries.
And so – it was last week that I realised that my Chinese partners were trying to build trust (and also scrutinise us) by showing us their body language during the video conference, instead of hiding behind a powerpoint!
What do you hear?
Aside from the “unspoken word”, words that we use in discussions differ from culture to culture.
We had a misunderstanding a while ago when we were discussing what entails good content for an up and coming news portal. I had instinctively thought of the likes of Yahoo (Just news and videos), whereas one of our Chinese counterparts were thinking of the likes of Toutiao (product comparisons, forums, games – anything consumers consumer on their screen without actual transactions). So for us, content was words and videos, for our Chinese partners content meant, well, pretty much everything.
The cultural upbringing and society that we belong to greatly affects the way we associate words.
Yang Liu nailed it in his East meet West digram: Complexity of self-expression
Another example is the word “road-map”. Chinese partners had the perception that we (from Rocket Internet) were planning too far ahead when we said we wanted to develop a road-map for our project.
“It’s impossible to plan for something 6 months down the line for a start-up project” the CEO had tried to reign us in. In reality, our “road-map” was only for the next 2 months, but it’s very interesting to see what goes on in different minds.
What do you do?
So what do you do to improve the working relationship? In our experience, we went through a challenging period to communicate in two spoken (and written languages) as well as a myriad of unspoken cues over the past few months.
Relationship has improved tremendously, partly thanks to a colleagues who used to study diplomacy, partly because both sides used DingTalk (which helps translate Chinese text to English, and vice versa), and partly because both sides were willing to adopt to the other parties’ way of doing things (we started to have more face to face meetings; the Chinese team started to send over documents before meetings).
All in all, the main ingredient for success was that we managed to build up trust amongst ourselves. As the Chinese saying goes, “只可意会, 不可言传 “- “It’s perceived rather than expressed.”
On our last day in China, we were exploring an idea that the Chinese partner was not keen on. After a few minutes of skirting around the issue, my Chinese colleague directly told me “What I meant was – can we not have this feature? We don’t have the time.“
Wow – That one declaration avoided an hour long discussions that we would previously have on such topics. That helped us to move forward to explore possibility without the feature, and of course, we observed the body languages of our Chinese partners to come to a final decision, an amicable one.
The things we do to improve relationships
Bridging all levels is no easy feat
It is worth noting that the three (mainland) Chinese colleagues at Momentum Works helped greatly in bridging the gap. Having lived in different cultures, in addition to their native Chinese one, these colleagues are able to detect misunderstandings very easily.
They have been very alert throughout discussions where they were present – one of them was in the meeting where we talked about content, and decided to spend 10 minutes explaining the context and bringing both parties to the same picture (he succeeded!).
It is also worth noting that in cross cultural relationship, as a cosmopolitan internet entrepreneur, you need to be able to mend such differences wherever possible. During our joint ventures and consulting projects for Chinese companies venturing overseas, we often realise that at the management or CEO level – it is much easier to bring people to the same understanding, as many in this level are exposed to different cultures.
However, to make a cross-border venture successful – effective communications and collaboration need to be maintained and constantly improved at all levels. This is no easy feat – we have seen a number of good Chinese internet companies tumble outside China because of exactly this.
Well, we believe the same communication issues also (largely) caused the failures of the likes of Groupon and Amazon in China.
In summary, this is an ongoing marathon to collaborate effectively, and maintain our relationship. There will be future instances where we will again question each other’s way of dealing with an issue, and the way to deal with it is to understand why, figure out whether it make sense, and balance the high-low context working environment.
Sounds easy but in our experience, not everyone can do this.