Magazine article Management Review

Avoid the 'Great Wall Syndrome'

Magazine article Management Review

Avoid the 'Great Wall Syndrome'

Article excerpt


We hope you enjoyed last month's stories (or "critical incidents") from Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. As promised, we will share with you the responses we received about the Brazilian "macumba" incident--but first some new examples, this time from the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and Turkey.


Jerome A. Cohen, a partner with the New York City-based international law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, contributed the following story. He has over 20 years of firsthand experience with the Chinese and has taught East Asian legal studies at Harvard University.

"A few years ago, while in Beijing in the midst of negotiating the off-shore drilling rights for a well-known American oil company, our talks hit a snag. Up to this point, things had gone well. I could tell that our Chinese hosts appreciated the fact that we were not another pack of naive foreigners with `China fever' or `Marco Polo-itis.' (It's also known as the `Great Wall Syndrome,' when people seem to develop a temporary paralysis of their critical faculties during their first visit [to China] and are swept up in the `romance of the Orient.')

"We actually were experiencing the antithesis of this, because we knew the culture and spoke the language. We were pushing for the inclusion of one particular item in the contract when our Chinese officials told us, `You know us, and we're not used to doing business like this. We prefer to operate on the basis of mutual trust, as you well know, and we feel we have established that with you. Such long, detailed contracts are only necessary between parties who don't trust one another.'

"Either he was being very complimentary or incredibly wily to use this argument, but in any case, the next day we resumed our discussions. When we got to an item the Chinese wanted to exclude, we refused politely, citing an old Chinese adage of our own: `Listen, as you well know, "Man is mortal." What if one of us were to have an accident or pass away? How would our successors know what to do, in case of our absence, if we didn't leave a written record of our agreements?'"

Cohen's example is a good one, as it raises the age-old issue of how much we should adapt to other nations' ways of doing business. Some Americans feel it's unfair to "bend over backwards" to be accommodating to foreigners. Cohen's critical incident shows that being sensitive also can be good for the bottom line. The purpose of knowing the host nation's culture is not just to be nice; it is one of the tools he has used to great advantage time and time again. The shortest distance between two points in another country might not be a straight line. Keep your business goals in mind, of course, but try using the host's rules of the road.

Quoting a local proverb, or citing one of your host's own cultural precedents, as the reason for doing something is far more likely to encourage agreement and get you the desired results than just depending on the logic of the way it's done back home. Insisting on doing it your way will not win you friends and influence people abroad. As we've been told by a well-meaning friend, "The American way is not necessarily God's will for the universe."


Our next incident, from the Soviet Union, also demonstrates that just because something makes sense to you, don't expect it to automatically make sense overseas.

Frank Cutitta contributed this story. As managing director of IDG Communications in Framingham, Massachusetts, he was the coordinator of advertising and marketing strategies for IDG/CI's newest publication, a U.S./Soviet joint venture, PC World USSR, the Russian-language version. A copy of the magazine was ceremoniously presented to him by the Soviet editor-in-chief. Our friend was immediately struck by the lack of its usual heft, and quickly flipped through the pages to see what was missing. …

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