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lessons from an american in shanghai

Wednesday 31 December, 2008

If you know me, you know that I’m the farthest thing from a fashionista.  Regardless, my dad gave me a subscription to Esquire magazine, in which a recent issued featured this article The New American by Chris Jones.   I think it brings out many things that Americans don’t appreciate nearly as much as they should when conducting international business .

Who changes?“Change has come, but it has come slowly, and while Comiskey remains an idealist, a believer in an almost quaint theory of world progress, inching forward transaction by transaction, Shanghai forced him to develop a more practical streak. He decided, instead, to let the city change him.” My take-this is what happens when you spend a lot of time abroad…learn that America isn’t the biggest & best in everything that we do after all.  Instead of becoming the American business imperialist, you adapt by learning what works locally, based on how things are done there as opposed to home.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, but 1 that’s important if you’re going to be successfully long-term outside of the US.

Business culture: “He is calm in expressing his displeasure, but he expresses it, in clipped Mandarin, and after, the woman retreats to a corner… She has seen how Americans react to Chinese mistakes. She has had Americans treat her and her friends like Jawas, as something less than human.

But Comiskey talks to her some more, in soothing tones, and then he extends his hand, palm down, and she comes to him, slowly, and their hands touch — not in a handshake, exactly, but more tenderly, and whatever he says to her, her surgical mask stops popping in and out so quickly, and her eyes change, and in them Comiskey can see that she’s smiling, and he knows that his precious inventory is gone along with his money, but he also knows that in exchange he has made a new friend who will do her best to understand him from now on.” My take-you can’t learn this stuff in B-school.  You can only learn it by living it & experiencing it in that context.  Americans who parachute in without this local knowledge & experience would never be able to get to this point.  It’s these soft skills that American businesspeople discount & ignore at their peril.

Engaged ex-pats? vs. going local: “It didn’t help that Shanghai’s expatriate community is as insular as the Chinese can seem…. They are in this city but they are not part of it… Then there are those foreigners who have integrated themselves completely — in fact, they have gone over the wall and become Chinese in their hearts and minds” My take-even ex-patriots who live & work abroad sometimes don’t integrate.  It’s very difficult to embed yourself in local business & company culture.  When I lived/worked in Germany, I had a few friends who didn’t speak German & have any German friends.  They lost a lot of the opportunity in that experience.  Even expats place in high positions aren’t respected by their subordinates because they don’t understand what happens & why underneath them.  Alternatively, going local ignores the goals & objectives of foreign-owned headquarters.  It’s a constant battle running along that fine line of going local vs. watching out for HQ interests.

Language: “When he and Jojo first came here, surrounded by so many millions, he was nearly crushed by loneliness. He couldn’t speak the language; he couldn’t read the street signs; Jojo was his single conduit to the world. Everything had to be filtered through her, and sometimes he felt like the boy in the bubble…He probably wouldn’t have made it here without Jojo… She didn’t want to be his translator for life…Comiskey can remember the moment he finally saw clearly… He still didn’t speak the language… He knew what the manager had said. It all made sense. As though in an instant, this seemingly incomprehensible language was English to him. And along with it, this impenetrable country was his, to. He didn’t go over the wall; the wall came down. Suddenly, almost miraculously, his world opened up, and he saw then, in that meeting, this future for himself and for his new country. That’s when he first through, I live in the land of the possible.” My take-Many Americans maintain that speaking English througuout the world works.  I counter that it’s true only at a very superficial level.  If you really want to dig in & learn how the foreign business people with whom you’re working think & make business decisions, you have to learn the local language.  In many cases, it’s a chicken & egg sort of thing-either the language controls how people think or how people think is controlled by the language they speak.  I speak German, which is a very structured language.  That’s how Germans think.  The same kinds of relationships are true for people who speak other languages…& when you get to the point that you can speak almost as well as a local, it can be a mind-expanging experience.  Being respected in foreign business culture is a heady thing.

America’s thoughts on the rest of the world: “Americans have every right to be proud of their country, but maybe we’re not respectful enough of other countries,” he says. “It’s like we don’t care what happens to anybody else. We have to become better integrated into the world and its economy. We have to become more than a destination for products and a source of culture. We have to be willing to make some serious changes in how we see the world and the world sees us.”‘  My take-Americans level of insularity & parochialism continues to shock me.  Their level of interest & engagement with the rest of the world is disturbing.  If we’re going to sell to & source from the rest of the world more successfully than our competitors, we’re going to have to learn more about them so that we can deal with them on their level & not ours.

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