Last week an article by a Chinese professor working at an University in India went viral on WeChat – where most Chinese now read their daily dose of chicken soup.
Judging from the hundreds of comments posted on her original article and the multiple reproductions, the article clearly resonated with the Chinese who have worked or lived in India recently.
I have personally worked in Gurgaon before, and travelled to India many times for business. I have not found it that difficult – but let’s discuss about the points Prof Zhang raised, which are quite valid and interesting.
The key differences
Prof Zhang aptly pointed out that for many Chinese, working with Indians is more difficult than dealing with Americans, despite the fact that China and India has been having cultural exchanges for millennia and Buddhism, probably the most prevalent religion in China, originated in India.
She illustrated the key differences in three aspects:
- On promises: Chinese tend to under promise because of the cultural stigma against those who do not stick to those promises; while Indians find it hard to say ‘no’, therefore they always point you a direction even if they do not know anything. The main method of saying ‘no’ in India is dragging;
- On results: Chinese tend to be very result-driven while Indians tend to focus a lot on the journey. This is probably due to India’s historical fact of cultural coexistence. In Bhagavad Gita (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita) it is mentioned “On action alone by thy interest, never on its fruits”.
- On rights: India people care about individual or clan rights to a great extent; while in China most focus on harmony.
The first two differences are probably what frustrate people the most during day to day interactions; while the third is more of an attitude or philosophical difference that transcends into people’s lives.
Prof Zhang said, when a typical Chinese is working with a typical Indian, the former will experience four stages of being: happiness, anxiety, disappointment, and fury.
She pointed that the the more international both are, the easier it is to work with each other, as their is a middle ground – the “international” (i.e. Western) way of communications.
Not always like that in China
We think, however, some aspects of this difference are not innate (or inherent). And the real situation is often a mosaic rather than a singular fact.
Specifically about the three points raised by Prof Zhang:
While the society at large in China praises promise-keeping, breaking (i.e. not keeping) them is also fairly rampant. Depending on who you ask, the situation has either improved or deteriorated over the past two decades – but when you actually do business in China, you often meet promises which you really do not know whether you should trust or not.
When China opened up, many Western businessmen also found that the Chinese would never say no – it’s always things like “We will need to think about it again” or “I will let my superior decide.” Maybe the only difference is that there is always a formulated way to say ‘no’ in China; while in India you still struggle to see what a head wobble really means.
Although people have always been hardworking in China, perhaps because of the Buddhist influence, traditional texts in China actually emphasised on the journey rather than the results.
The rapid expansion of the economy over the past two decades, and particularly the aggressive competition in the tech industry, profoundly changed the way people perceive results. Frontrunners in the industry, from Huawei to Alibaba, all prize speed and aggressiveness.
Result-driven has therefore become the norm.
While the focus on harmony is so important in the traditional culture, the society over the course of Chinese history was rarely harmonious. Internal strife was rampant and clashes between communities frequent.
Working with Indians
In the past, Chinese merchants migrated to different countries, found their ways to navigate the local culture, and everything eventually would balance over the years.
With now more and more Chinese seek to expand their businesses or invest overseas, the mentality is not the same. Many take pride in what they (or China in general) have achieved and have less patience (or willingness) to understand and adapt to the local culture.
And this does not only happen when working with Indians; many Chinese businessmen find it challenging in Africa, in Middle East, and in Eastern Europe.
Just like the way many American expats found it challenging to work in China, or any other emerging markets.
We really think it is not a big issue that people need to worry about – what people (who work in another culture) Do need, though, is the understanding of the nuances that define the culture, and the willingness to respect that.
Prof Zhang’s article concluded “It is difficult to judge which culture is better. In fact, as a global citizen, we need to respect the differences across cultures. More importantly, we need to understand the underlying logic that caused these differences. Only this we can align our expectations and live and work well across cultures.”
Oh, and we wish the Modi-Xi informal summit later this week a great success.