The forest from the tree
木 = tree
林 = forest
In Chinese, the character for the tree looks like a tree 木。 The Chinese, being practical people, write 林 to describe a forest (two 木 side by side). 木 is pronounced mu4 and 林 is pronounced lin2. You probably heard of the Shaolin warrior monks. Shaolin is written 少林 and means not much forest. So it means that the area is not very wooded. Chinese can be deceptively easy.
So here is the issue: in cross cultural work, let us not take the 木 for the 林.
The way is goes is usually like this: a group of well intentioned Westerners wants to learn how to work with their equally well intentioned Chinese colleagues. It all starts very nicely, understanding levels of cultural awareness and so on.
Forget about the cultural codes
The main message is simple. Forget about the codes, there are very few codes you really need to learn. This is not Japan and you do not need to be familiar with the angle of bending when saluting. Even in Japan, they know you are not Japanese. Everywhere in Asia, they know that you are not from here, and if you are humble and curious about it, you will increase your chances of having a great time.
So forget about the codes. Instead, once with the Chinese, asks them about their codes. They will be your best teachers. And they can afford to tell you something that when I say it, people become all disgruntled: “it depends.” I know the feeling: I used to ask my Chinese colleagues about their culturally based behaviors, and they kept answering: “You know there is 1.4 billion of us, so it depends.” I hope you appreciate the Chinese cultural double loop innuendo in this reply. I stopped asking.
Too curious about cultural codes
Back to the group, they now have a high level understanding of what’s going on. They have the main keys, ready to go.
The Western mind kick in with a revenge. Westerners often forget about the functions of things, like a meeting is seen differently in China and in Western countries (because i China, the talking has already been done). They forget about observing. All they want is recipes: how do you shake hands, where do you sit, can you look someone in the eyes… But the moment they forget to observe, and they think that we agree on all this invisible and unspoken stuff, is the moment they get lost in the forest.
You can do all those things “right” by “the book,” and still never achieve any cultural proficiency. The reverse is also true. Being knowledgeable about drinking rituals in KTV is not going to get you any closer to understanding the finesses of indirect communication. Well it eventually could, but you liver could give up first.
So relax about codes and taboos. Probably the one you need to be careful about is not to touch a child’s head or put your hand over it, because you would severe the connection to Heaven. Other than that, do you see yourself giving a clock or an umbrella as a present to your Chinese client or counterpart?