Are You Making This Cultural Faux-Pas?

Date Created: 28.04.2014

Not knowing the local culture can cost you serious time, money, and embarrassment.

While living in China, I noticed the same phenomenon that would frustrate me over, and over and over:

I would be chatting with a person, and we’d make a connection, for example, I would be playing basketball out in front of the university I was studying at, and some local Chinese students would make friends with me.

We would get to talking, and then I would invite them out for lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks or some other social engagement.

Here’s the thing: 100% of the time, they would happily agree with a big smile… and almost 100% of the time nobody showed up.

Now the same happened with the dating scene:

Frequently I would be speaking with a local Chinese girl, things would be going well, and then I would ask for a coffee meet-up or date, she would reply 好 or 好吧  (okay!) And then she wouldn’t show up.

A third example: Many frustrated western businessmen would ask me "what’s up" with the culture in China. They would be undergoing negotiations, patiently working through a business deal and ask for feedback or to take it to the next level.

The Chinese businessman or woman would say yes, or agree, at which point the Western businessman got his hopes up assuming the deal was going through – only to find out later via a call or email that they had rejected the deal.

So what gives?

In reality, most of these situations are examples  of face, which is a powerful cultural phenomenon found in China and some other Asian countries.

Sometimes, 面子 mianzi (or helping people avoid losing face) means that a person will agree with you just to avoid the awkwardness of saying no and potentially embarrassing you.

So that’s why new friends would often say "yes" but never show up.

That’s why my romantic advances also were often met with a "yes" but no one showed up.

And that’s part of why sometimes western businessmen or women think their deals are going through… but they don’t.

Think of "yes" as the default "okay, let me think" situation.

So what does this mean for you?

Before you go anywhere for an extended trip, but particularly for those of you doing business abroad, knowing the culture isn’t optional: it’s required.

Think of the thousands of business deals gone wrong not because of business issues – but cultural issues.

Think of the millions of dollars lost in poor ad campaigns or partnerships due to misunderstanding.

And think of the potential friendships, relationships, or life experiences gone sour just because of a simple cultural faux pas?

Know the culture, and you will have a significantly more enjoyable expat experience abroad.