Culture Shock: Confronting a Foreign Cultural Code

Imagine you’re flying into JFK in New York.

Recovering from jet lag, you disembark the plane, groggy and buzzing but still excited.

After all, you’re now in the Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps.

You’re ready to explore and uncover every local gem and hidden hole-in-the-wall New York City has to offer.

You pull out your map, prepared to navigate New York’s famous subway system.

But instead, you find you’ve packed a map of the London Underground.

This is a bit what culture shock is like.

Culture Shock

Your map, in the above scenario, is your cultural code.

Although it’s easy to get around New York City when you know the way and have the directions at your fingertips, trying to use that map any other place is pretty pointless.

When first arriving in another country and culture, you’ll be confronted with this hard truth: you have stored internally the entirely wrong map.

This results in culture shock.

While you may only at first recognize the negative effects, culture shock is positive in some ways.

For one, you now KNOW you have the wrong map.

This knowledge will allow you to internally and externally develop a more accurate map for reality.

After experiencing culture shock, you will be able to anticipate the need to adjust. And the more you adjust, the less of a shock it will be for you when you realize there’s a street you never knew about or a bridge you must cross.

You’ll eventually learn the cultural code to the point that the shock wears off. 

But…

Reverse Culture Shock

Imagine you’re flying into London Heathrow after having lived in New York for two years. It’s the first time you’ve returned home.

Recovering from jet lag, you disembark the plane, groggy and buzzing but still excited.

After all, you’re now home sweet home again in the City of Fog.

But you realize, suddenly, everything seems foggier.

You’re ready to return to all the familiar places, and although you remember them on sight, you cannot seem to get into the rhythm.

Your internal map is still set to New York time. Your feet keep searching for the streets of downtown Manhattan.

You find that though your memory is trying to reload your map of London, it’s still got New York on the mind.

This is called reverse culture shock.

It’s even more off-putting than culture shock, because you DO know your own cultural code; you’re just finding it difficult to remember or relearn it.

This type of culture shock can hit you hardest.

We’ll talk more about why reverse culture shock can be so powerful next week.

The Rice Field Analogy: Negotiation Tactics Across Cultures

Cultures have codes.

The past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to tap into these codes by using analogies constructively.

So can they be used to tap into negotiating with other cultures.

Innate Analogous Terms in Negotiation

Negotiation is a game.

In each culture, this game has different rules.

Strategy in negotiation requires understanding the game you’re playing.

Language used in negotiation is, of itself, analogous.

Negotiation is sometimes likened to going to war. Rules are minimal. Often, sports jargon is used, such as “fair play,” which is:

“in sport, the fact of playing according to the rules and not having an unfair advantage.”

Negotiations are something to be “won.”

These analogous terms used in negotiations naturally extend to cultures.

Framing a foreign culture’s negotiation tactics in the form of an analogy will help drive the correct strategy to “win.”

Cultural Analogies in Negotiation

In negotiation, Russians are “playing poker”; Germans are “playing chess.”

These are pretty straight forward analogies, easily understood by Westerners.

But what about the Chinese?

Chinese negotiations can be an enigma to foreigners.

You might feel mutual confidence, trust, and cooperation one day and, the very next, feel tricked into accepting something you hadn’t discussed.

The “pattern” is not like poker; it’s not like chess.

It’s variable and inconsistent.

To understand this seemingly random give-and-take, a friend provided me a succinct analogy: Chinese negotiations are like working in a rice field.

Rice is, without a doubt, an important part of Chinese culture.

It provides the people sustenance every single day from childhood to old age.

Cultivating this crop necessitates much more cooperation within a village than do crops in Europe or the U.S.

The rice field terraces in the countryside are flooded with a common irrigation system. The water irrigates one field to the next, and this requires that the entire village collectively working together.

Focusing on your land, alone, won’t work.

Instead, you must both hold your own and cooperate with others in equal parts.

This is what negotiating in China requires.

blog rice2

View it as working together on these rice terraces: you must hold your own while using the same irrigation system as that which feeds your business partner’s field. And your business partner is doing the same.

In order to be successful, you must support and cooperate with your business partner while playing defensively and cleverly, seeking your own advantage and ensuring that your partner doesn’t exploit his.

When negotiating with Chinese partners, you aren’t playing poker, neither are you playing chess.

You’re working in a rice field together, both supporting and competing.