Posts tagged china
A few months ago, this was the most popular picture in China. Is there anything striking about this shot of a man with his daughter ordering a morning coffee before a long flight? For the most part, there is nothing to notice. Unless you knew that this man is Gary Locke, the US Ambassador to China.
China, like several other Asian countries (including our own India), is very hierarchical in its structure: socially, in business, and especially in politics. The reason so many in China responded to this picture is that they are not used to seeing high level diplomats 1.) Carrying their own backpack, 2.) Owning a backpack, 3.) Taking care of their own children, and 4.) Ordering their own coffee. In such structures, there is always someone else to do these tasks.
For those in the West, hierarchy can be a dirty word. They like their leaders to be humble and their bosses to have open doors. However, before we go throwing away the idea of hierarchy, and assuming that everyone else should, another story should be shared.
A client of ours was a leading executive of a foreign company having some issues with land disputes where they were going to build a factory. Instead of relying on his mediators, this man decided that the best way to solve this was to cut through all the red tape and be a “man of the people”. He learned a few words in the local dialect, put on his blue jeans, jumped on his motorcycle, and headed to the village to sort out the problem. The only problem was that when he arrived, the local people only kept asking him when the real boss was going to show up. They didn’t want to talk to a man on a bike, they wanted to talk to a man with power who can command a large staff, drive up in big cars, and impose his will where needed. They were looking for someone to talk to who could go back and immediately get something done, and what they saw in front of them was not that. Needless to say, the talks didn’t go so well.
So how should foreigners respond in new fields where the rules are different? Westerners coming to China, India, or other hierarchical cultures could take a cue that while ordering your own coffee is one thing, you should be very sensitive to the structures already in place and do your best to honor them, or you might end up doing more damage than good. For those traveling outside, it’s good to remember that if someone doesn’t seem to respect your title or tells you to make your own coffee, it’s nothing personal – just the way things are.
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