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Cultural Pitfalls that Western Executives should avoid with Chinese Stakeholders (1/3)

By Daniel Sanchez Reina | September 23, 2019 | 0 Comments

Change CommunicationsCIO Leadership, Culture and People

This is the first one of a series of 3 posts about the captioned topic.

Despite political and economic turbulence between the U.S. and China, Western firms’ acquisitions and company creations in China are increasing, as is the trend of high-skilled tech talent moving from China to the U.S. and Europe. Be thoughtful about some cultural pitfalls with Chinese stakeholders.

For the purpose of this post, “Western” loosely refers to executives from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.


Low-Context Versus High-Context Cultures

Low-context communication is typical of Western countries. It relies on explicit communication, whereby what is said matches what is meant. Messages are clearly defined and conveyed, with little room for interpretation. High-context communication is the norm in Eastern and Latin American countries. It relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues. The unsaid backdrop (contextual elements like body language, tone of voice and hierarchy) is more important than words.

The following graphic shows the culture spectrum of Low Context vs High Context cultures:

Given their position in the culture spectrum, Chinese people without overseas studies or work experience are likely to experience U.S. and European nationals as:
  • Extremely blunt in their communication
  • Insensitive
  • Aggressive
  • Rude
  • Full of irrelevant information
  • Insulting their intelligence explaining the obvious
  • Overly preoccupied with the problem and not with the overall picture
On the other hand, U.S. and European nationals might interpret the Chinese as:
  • Secretive and disconcerting in their messages
  • Dishonest
  • Vague
  • Elusive
  • Repetitive
  • Unable to focus on a problem and providing no direction

Develop tactics to counter these myths, putting yourself in their shoes about how they see you. It will help you counter those perceptions and improve the relationships with your Chinese stakeholders.

Direct versus Indirect Negative Feedback

The difficulties inherent to communication styles pose even more challenge when it comes to Western executives giving feedback, particularly negative feedback, to their colleagues, teams or business partners in China.


Direct, negative feedback is provided honestly and bluntly. Negative messages are clearly posed, and absolute descriptors like “totally inappropriate” or “completely unprofessional” are used.
Indirect, negative feedback is provided diplomatically and subtly. Negative messages are sandwiched between positive ones. Descriptors are much softer, such as “sort of inappropriate” or “slightly unprofessional.”


Countries with low-context communication tend to give negative feedback in a direct way, while high-context ones tend to give it in an indirect way. There are a few exceptions to this rule for some countries, but in the case of Western countries and China, the general rules prevail.


The following graphic shows the culture spectrum of Negative Feedback:



From the U.S. and Europe perspective, negative feedback is not intended to be offensive, but a sign of honesty, transparency and respect for the person receiving the feedback. However, seen from China, it can be considered offensive and disrespectful, no matter if given in private or in public (but much worse in public). Take it into account in your conversations with your Chinese stakeholders. 


If you want to learn more about practical recommendations to overcome these cultural pitfalls,  see “5 Cultural Pitfalls that Western CIOs Should Avoid With Chinese Stakeholders”.


May wisdom and courage be with you.


Daniel Sanchez Reina
I will be looking forward to talking to you. Feel free to schedule an inquiry call (, follow me on Twitter (@DanielSnchezRna) or connect with me on LinkedIn.


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