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Economy

When Business Crosses Cultures, Etiquette Alone Won't Cut It

When dealing with 'distant cultures' like China, communication is key. But a bit of business-is-business pragmatism doesn't hurt either.

The Chinese two-handed method of presenting a business card
The Chinese two-handed method of presenting a business card
Claudia Labarca

-Analysis-

SANTIAGO — Ask Google "how to do business in China" and you'll get about 30 million answers. That's if you pose the question in Spanish. In English, it'd be closer to 1.2 billion answers.

Most of the search engine's Spanish-language tips are about the customs or cultural traits people seeking to do business in China should consider. It will advise you on basic points of etiquette: like presenting your business card with both hands, for example; exchanging gifts; or showing respect for Chinese culture.

Such pointers work on the essential premise of inter-cultural communication, namely trying to understand partners from another culture. And that's important. But as the sociologist Mark Granovetter argues, we also run the risk of "over-socializing" economic relations with China. By that he means emphasizing social criteria at the expense of rational and economic criteria.

The risk of over-simplifying Chinese identity, of assuming that there is a single, national conduct.

This over-socialization may even be deemed an example of "orientalism," as termed by the historian Edward Said. Orientalism positions your interlocutor as fundamentally different (and implicitly pre-modern or un-modern), and subject to cultural considerations that exceed strictly rational bounds.

At the same time, taking a strictly rational path doesn't necessarily spell success in inter-cultural business relations either. Based on conversations I've had with Chilean business executives who interact with China, there seems to be a range of approaches used. At one extreme are people who see cultural considerations as irrelevant. In their mind, business is business, regardless of where you live or work. On the other extreme are those who put themselves at a disadvantage by trying — often without success and generally on a superficial level — to assimilate alien norms of behavior and thus strengthen interpersonal ties.

With the latter approach, there's also the risk of over-simplifying Chinese identity, of assuming that there is a single, national conduct, and equal cultural and trading values across China. A society that has some 1.4 billion members and dozens of different ethnic groups, and that has undergone the globalization process at differing paces since the rule of the late Chairman Deng Xiao Ping, must, by definition, have a diversity of business practices and values. And yet, for people wanting to do business in China, those differences may be difficult to identify, try they might to take a culturally sensitive approach.

Perhaps the best way to avoid extremes is through constant interaction and observation of the other side, and by seeking reciprocity — what political scientist Robert Axelrod calls the "tit-for-tat" approach. An improved version would be a rational, collaborative model, wherein cultural variables effectively coincide to improve economic cooperation.

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