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


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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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