Here’s a review I just had published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Comments welcome.
Success in China
Here’s a review I just had published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Comments welcome.
Last Friday we held the 28th opening ceremony of the Hopkins–Nanjing Center. Here are the remarks I offered our students.
In the summer of 2006, on leave from our busy lives in Beijing, my family and I took an epic road trip through the American West. One day we drove through Death Valley, California, one of the hottest places on earth. The temperature was 125 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 52 degrees Celsius. From there we drove over two high mountain passes and down into Owens Valley, with the highest peaks in the Continental United States towering over us, Mount Whitney topping them all at 14,505 feet (which is 4,421 meters). We ended our day at a motel in the small town of Bishop, California, at the northern end of Owens Valley.
After dinner we relaxed in the small hot tub at the motel. It was around 8:30. Our older daughter Mariette, just four years old at the time, asked how long we would stay in the hot tub. Colette and I had previously decided we’d stay until 9:00, and so I answered: about a half hour. She smiled and said, “That’s a long time.” I replied, “Yes, sweetie, it is. Or at least it seems that way now. But when 30 minutes is up it’s going to seem like it was really short. So be sure you enjoy these 30 minutes.”
Here we are, together, this 13th day of September, 2013. Spread out before us is the academic year, with all its rich potential and mystery. We can’t possibly know what is ahead of us. We do know that “it” will be a lot. We are in for an wild ride over the next nine months.
One thing we know about the Hopkins–Nanjing Center is that it is a place of intensive intercultural learning. Usually when we talk casually about intercultural learning we have an underlying assumption that our main job is to look outside of ourselves, to learn about “them.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact it’s crucial. It’s also only part of the picture.
To me the greatest challenge of intercultural learning is to look inside — with curiosity, openness and compassion. Curiosity, because without it no learning is possible. Openness, because we don’t know what we will find when we look, and we have to be ready to deal with it. And compassion, because we might not like what we see, but in order to grow, we need to accept ourselves with all our limitations.
I know you are all ready for this, because you chose to come here. And the environment you will live in for the next nine months guarantees you many opportunities for deep intercultural learning, no matter how much or how little conscious awareness you bring to your own introspection.
Imagine how much further we can go by bringing conscious awareness and commitment to looking inside of ourselves — week to week, day to day, moment to moment? By shifting the default question we ask when we feel the discomfort of intercultural difference from “What’s wrong with them?” to “What can I learn about myself?”
Why do our alumni love the HNC so deeply? Why do they come back whenever they can, and stay as connected as they can to their classmates?
Because the world looks different to them since their time here. Much of the world operates under a different set of assumptions than we do at the HNC, where we rest on a foundation of mutual respect, and where we don’t let ourselves off the hook by blaming our problems exclusively on our cultural differences. People who have been through this experience know this in a way few others can. They know how fleeting, and how precious, our time here is.
So, here we are, slipping into our “hot tub” time at the HNC. How long will this year be? Nine months. Is that a long time? I don’t know. But I can say with great confidence that when those nine months are up, it’s going to seem like it was really short.
How will you make the most of this ride?
Granted this is a tad self-referential. Dan Harris over at the China Law Blog has graciously given yours truly and this blog a shout out. Thanks, Dan.
And if I might return the favor: you might have noticed the China Law Blog in my blogroll before, but in case you haven’t, be sure to make your way over there and read up. Subscribe to the feed as well so you don’t miss anything.
Check out this video, posted recently on the 100,000 Strong website, about a pioneering effort by the Hopkins–Nanjing Center to build a more cohesive alumni community. In the video you will hear not only from me, but from many of our alumni, discussing the inspiring learning environment we have here. (Run time is 3:40.)
You can also watch it embedded here:
I’ve never seen a statement about the business value of intercultural skills as clear and concise as this:
More and more business leaders are identifying real business value in employing staff with intercultural skills. These skills are vital, not just in smoothing international business transactions, but also in developing long term relationships with customers and suppliers. Increasingly they also play a key role within the workplace, enhancing team working, fostering creativity, improving communication and reducing conflict. All this translates into greater efficiency, stronger brand identity, enhanced reputation and ultimately impact on the bottom line.
This is in the foreword of a new report from the British Council, in association with Ipsos and Booz Allen Hamilton. The report is called “Culture at Work,” and it reads like a manifesto.
It’s music to the ears of interculturalists, who struggle with old stereotypes that “communication” is somehow “soft” and lacks “hard” business value. (See also an earlier post about a similar report from the Economist Intelligence Unit.)
The study surveyed HR managers at 367 large employers located in nine countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the UAE, the UK and the US.
The report is packed with good data. A few highlights:
We’ve got some distance to go yet, but we’re on a long, one-way road toward greater valuing of intercultural skills in the global workplace.
In the last post we looked at Milton Bennett’s analysis of ethnocentrism. Today we take up the flip side of the coin: ethnorelativism.
Here again is Bennett’s diagram:
Continuing our rightward trajectory along the path in the diagram, we now cross the big dividing line between ethnocentrism and ethnorelativism. The key shift is from threat to non-threat: in the ethnocentric states we relate to difference as a threat to our own cherished ways of being and doing, and the actions we take in response are protective and defensive in nature — and possibly counter-threatening. In the ethnorelative stages the focus shifts to adding, as we realize that new categories can supplement, instead of threaten, our existing categories. Curiosity and thirst for learning take over, and make the intercultural experience something we are more likely to enjoy. Bennett writes:
The contrast in the ways of experiencing difference is illustrated in the reports of two study-abroad students who had just returned from a homestay in France. One student stated, “My homestay mother was always yelling at me in French, which I didn’t understand well. I felt like I was always doing something wrong. It was a bad situation, and I was happy when I got changed to a different home where the mother spoke some English.” The second student reported a similar situation but a different reaction: “My homestay mother would burst into my room in the morning, throw open the window, and yell things in French I didn’t understand. It was just wonderful — so French!”
The first ethnorelative stage is Acceptance. In this stage we are willing to accept another mindset as potentially as valid as our own. And, crucially, we respect other mindsets, including both values and associated behaviors. We also begin to understand culture as a process, rather than as a “thing” that we “have.” If culture is a thing that we have, then it is static, and there is little hope for transforming our own mindset. If culture is a process — something that we all engage in — then we can hope to continue learning and developing.
As we move from Acceptance into the next stage, Adaptation, the focus shifts to developing the concrete skills that allow us to genuinely shift from our own default cultural point of reference to a point of reference based in another culture. Here Bennett distinguishes between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is mostly ethnocentric: we might try to imagine how we would handle a situation if we were, say, French, but we imagine doing so from our American perspective. Empathy, in contrast, involves a genuine attempt to shift perspective. Bennett offers this example:
Recently I observed this contrast illustrated by two American reactions to an Arab student’s weekend flight to London. The sympathetic (and ethnocentric) comment was, “Boy, it must be great to have so much money you could just do anything you wanted.” The empathic response was, “Maybe airplanes are like modern camels — conveyances you use to fulfill obligations to friends across some ocean-desert.” The sympathetic response projected an individualistic American worldview into the perceived situation, while the empathic response assumed that the Arab’s experience of an airplane trip was probably different than an American’s would be. It is not so important that the empathic statement was correct; what is important is that it acknowledged and respected possible cultural difference.
In Adaptation, the additive nature of ethnorelativism really kicks in: we see that we can approach the world through frameworks other than our own default framework, without our default framework being threatened. We have more arrows in our quiver, more tools in our toolbox. We can view life through many different lenses, and engage with the world through many different means. All the while, though, our default framework remains primary.
In the final stage, Integration, we cease to have a single primary cultural framework as a reference point for thought and action. Instead, we are able to draw equally on whatever frameworks we have become fluent in through our experiences. “Marginality” is a key marker of people in this stage: “They are outside all cultural frames of reference by virtue of their ability to consciously raise any assumption to a metalevel (level of self-reference). In other words, there is no natural cultural identity for a marginal person.” Few of us may want to venture this far into ethnorelativity. For most purposes, Bennett emphasizes, Adaptation will serve our purposes — especially because the kind of marginality inherent in Integration can be, subjectively, a source of much stress and anxiety.
In his analysis, Bennett is clear that he doesn’t intend his model to describe the static state of any single human being. Each of us at any given moment can find ourselves in any of the stages. What we want, and what we work for, is a steady, stubborn push toward the right side of the diagram — maybe stopping at Adaptation and not venturing too far into Integration.
What does all this ultimately mean for us? The value I see in Bennett’s model is threefold. First, by framing intercultural sensitivity as developmental, he shows us that, realistically, human beings must go through certain stages in our quest for understanding. Reading a travel guide won’t catapult us into Adaptation.
Second, Bennett’s model makes it clear that this kind of growth doesn’t just happen. Each of us has to be an active, seeking agent. We have to experience the discomforts and put in the hard work in order for progress to happen.
And finally, by focusing on the additive nature of intercultural sensitivity, Bennett gives us a way out of zero-sum ways of thinking about culture. The more cultures I am fluent in, the more tools I have for solving problems. It’s simply not true that the more able I am to relate to China, the less able I am to relate to the United States.
 Milton Bennett, 1993, Towards Ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. Education for the Intercultural Experience, edited by M. Paige. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, pp. 21-71. Citation from p. 47.
 Bennett, 1993, p. 53.
 Bennett, 1993, p. 63.
Referring back to a quote from Milton Bennett, pillar of the field of intercultural communication:
Intercultural sensitivity is not natural. It is not part of our primate past, nor has it characterized most of human history. Cross-cultural contact usually has been accompanied by bloodshed, oppression, or genocide. (Milton Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity.” In M. Paige (Ed.) Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1993, p. 21)
Bennett’s agenda in saying this isn’t to have us throw in the intercultural towel and give up on getting along. His point is to help us understand the scope and scale of the obstacles we humans confront in the task of getting along, so that we can get better at it — in much the same way as a coach, in order to be effective, has to point out a player’s shortcomings.
The above quote leads off Bennett’s most famous article. The “developmental model” referred to in the title has since become one of the industry standards in intercultural communication. Here we’ll take look at the ethnocentric side of the model.
Bennett argues that, as human beings spend more time in intercultural environments, they trace out a roughly predictable developmental path. He divides the path into six stages, the first three of which are “ethnocentric” and the latter three of which are “ethnorelative.” Here is how the stages are represented:
The ethnocentric side of the diagram is defined as “assuming that the worldview of one’s own culture is central to all reality.” (30) Stage 1, Denial, is the most basic form of ethnocentrism: no other groups even exist that are worthy of attention. In a world as interconnected as ours is in the 21st century, it’s hard to maintain this illusion. The only way to do it, really, is through “denial” in the psychological sense: pretending that something doesn’t exist, even when it should be obvious that it does exist. One example is the ways in which expatriate communities isolate themselves from their surroundings, trying to create, for example, a “little America” on the outskirts of Beijing.
Defense/reversal is stage 2. In pure Denial, the non-existence of the “other” means there is no threat. In Defense, there is open acknowledgment of difference, and along with it a sense of threat. We defend ourselves against the threat by insisting that “our way” is better. Denigration is the hallmark of the Defense stage.
Reversal, the mirror image of Defense, occurs when we denigrate our own culture, having become immersed in another culture which we have decided is superior. This happens frequently with Peace Corps volunteers, according to Bennett.
Minimization, stage 3, is further along the developmental path, because not only is cultural difference recognized, but it is no longer denigrated. What unites all humanity is put at the forefront; cultural differences are presumed to be less important than what we all share.
You may ask: Why is this still considered ethnocentric? Bennett points out that a kind of universalism underpins this viewpoint, and that universalism might not be shared by all cultures. Bennett puts it this way: “…in general, people who have experienced cultural oppression are wary of the ‘liberal’ assumption of common humanity. Too often, the assumption has meant ‘be like me.’” (42). In other words, we might think we’re all one big, shiny, happy human family. Beneath the surface, though, are some more sinister, ethnocentric tendencies in ourselves that we are pretending don’t exist — yet without which we wouldn’t be claiming that “we’re all the same.” The sentiment that “we’re all the same” sounds much better if “they” are the same as “we,” but not vice versa.
When using Bennett’s ideas in my consulting work, I usually focus on Defense, because I see it as the default state of humanity. Most of us spend enough time exposed to those with obviously different beliefs from us that we can’t be in Denial, and Minimization won’t hold up to scrutiny on most days. So on bad days, or in bad weeks or months, we end up in Defense…a lot.
Have you spent much time around Western expatriates living in developing countries? I’ve been one for a good part of my life, and I can tell you firsthand that I’ve spent a lot of energy complaining about how “they” do things here, and that I’ve heard plenty of the same from other Westerners around me, most of whom I like and respect a lot as human beings. We’re not bad people for wishing “they” were more like “us”; we’re just standard-issue human beings stuck, for however long—hours, days, weeks—in a stunted stage of intercultural development.
Bennett is clear that he doesn’t intend his model to describe the static state of any single human being. Each of us at any given moment can find ourselves in any of the stages. What we want, and what we work for, is a steady, stubborn push toward the right side of the diagram.
I’ll take up ethnorelativism next time.
Building on this interview the gritty startup ATLAS did with me several months ago, they recently interviewed me again as part of the “meet the board” series. You can link to it here or read the full text below.
Dr. Jason Patent, American Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, has forged his own path to the forefront of the conversation about international China education. Jason’s pioneering work in intercultural training over the past two decades makes him uniquely qualified to identify the areas in which cross-culturally competent professionals can contribute to companies’ success internationally.
Jason’s current role at the HNC puts him at the intersection of the classroom and the workforce. Read on for his advice on how to get the best out of both:
In your China career you’ve been a business consultant, educator, and author. Is there a unifying theme that you can draw out of your diverse experience?
What unifies all these experiences is a commitment to understanding, both ourselves and those who are different from us. If you look at the state of humanity, it’s not pretty. Despite all the technological advances that have the potential to connect us, we’re still killing one another.
Decades of findings in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience have shown that almost all of what we believe has been programmed into us by our perceptual systems, languages and cultures. We’re not rational beings, despite what our minds may tell us. If we want a better future for the species we have to start by looking at our unconscious assumptions. Only then can we choose what to keep and what to reexamine.
Could you say a little bit about your vision for the Hopkins-Nanjing Center as it prepares students to get meaningfully engaged in building the US-China relationship?
I see HNC headed in a more global direction, so that it’s about more than the U.S. and China. What would the Center look like if we had, say, a few students from Japan each year? From India? From Russia? The list goes on.
Also, with the addition of a full-time career services professional to our Nanjing staff, we’re in a great position to help our students find careers where their talents are maximally leveraged. When combined with our intensified efforts to build an active community of alumni, we’re putting in place an infrastructure for our graduates to have the maximum possible impact on the world using the utterly unique skill set they’ve built at the HNC.
What are the most important skills and attitudes that you encourage international students at the HNC to acquire?
It’s the same for both international and Chinese students, and relates to question #1: be skeptical of your own truths and be open to other truths.
What roles do you see international HNC graduates playing in China business?
Translated into the business world, the seemingly high-minded ideas I’ve been talking about translate into efficiency and endurance: HNC grads, armed with these skills, will help businesses operate with lower costs in the short and long term, and with smoother cooperation with Chinese partners. Things will move more quickly, and turnover will go down. This builds strengths for long-term success.
Where do you see the most room for improvement in the way international students are educated about China?
The sorts of skills I’ve been talking about building — doggedly questioning our own truths and laying the groundwork for other truths — are best learned in a structured environment, with skilled facilitators, over the course of months and years. I’m teaching a course at HNC that helps build these skills, but there is still a structural problem that the world at large views these issues as “soft” and peripheral, rather than as the most hardcore learning issues there are. More courses on China should begin with questioning ourselves, rather than with treating “China,” whatever we take China to be, as “out there,” as something independent of our perceptions and biases.
How do you advise HNC students and other young professionals developing China-focused careers?
Two things. First, I tell them they need to do the work of translating their skill set into something a hiring manager can understand. “Cross-cultural” and “bilingual” just don’t cut it. What do these skills mean for any given job description?
Second, I urge students to get whatever experience they can working in an actual company. Future employers will want to know what specific experience students have had in this or that industry and function. Knowledge of China and Chinese by itself is not that valuable in the eyes of most companies. It has to be supplemented with actual experience.
Why did you join ATLAS’ Board of Advisors?
ATLAS is on the cutting edge of China business and of global business. They are actively demonstrating, and advocating for, the value of the sort of talent developed at HNC. They are doing the hard work of translating the abstract “language” and “culture” skills into terms that matter for companies. As ATLAS grows and becomes more successful, there will be more and more happy companies who owe their success to these types of talented people. More and more people and organizations will begin to see how crucial these once-“soft” skills are to success.
The ultimate result is more global interconnection and more understanding, which is good for humanity.
To share in more of Jason’s insights, follow his active personal blog at Jasonpatent.com. I would also encourage anyone who likes what they hear to check out the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a unique graduate program. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next post in the series soon. In the meantime, please register online with ATLAS-China to receive updates on exclusive job listings and new career development resources.
Last November in Beijing I gave a talk at the American Chamber of Commerce in China. In the talk I discussed a recent report by the Economist Intelligent Unit (EIU): Competing across borders: How cultural and communication barriers affect business. The report is packed with statistics and analysis of the challenges global businesses face working in multiple geographies.
The EIU surveyed 572 executives in February and March, 2012. Every company either has an international presence or plans to expand internationally. Almost half of the respondents (47%) were at the board level or C-level. More than half (53%) were from companies with over $500 million in annual revenue.
In addition to the survey, the EIU conducted interviews with eight top-level executives with deep and broad global experience.
These are not mom-and-pop shops; the respondents know the challenges of working globally in large, complex organizations.
The stats paint an odd picture: overwhelmingly these executives agree that working across borders presents unique and significant challenges. Yet an alarming number aren’t doing what they need to do.
Let’s start with the responses to this question: “Overall, how important would you say cross-border collaboration is in the following environments? Within your organisation generally; Within your business unit or division; With external partners, suppliers or outsourcers in other countries”
The percentage of respondents who answered “very important” or “somewhat important” is (in order): 97%, 94%, 95%.
Next, this question: “To what extent can better cross-border communications improve the following at your company? Profit; Revenue; Market share”
88%, 89%, 86%
What’s more important to a business than profit, revenue and market share?
Clearly cross-border collaboration matters for these companies.
What makes cross-border communication especially challenging? A number of things, according to the survey, which asked: “Of the following, which are most likely to cause the greatest misunderstanding in cross-border communication for your organisation?”
Topping the list: “Differences in cultural traditions in different countries,” which was listed by 51% of respondents (when allowed to choose two from a list of six).
Surely, then, addressing these challenges must be a top priority for these companies?
Not so much.
The survey asked: “In improving cross-border communications, how would you describe your company’s investment in the following?”
“Management time spent on assessing impact of cross-border communication issues” 34% either “not enough” or “negligible”
“Training to improve employees’ language and communication skills”: 47% either “not enough” or “negligible”
“Conflict resolution of disputes arising from cross- cultural misunderstandings”: 42% either “not enough” or “negligible”
“Recruitment and selection of individuals who are suited to cross-cultural environments”: 40% either “not enough” or “negligible”
The EIU team concludes:
In light of the fact that in the same survey most executives admit to a strong correlation between cross-border communication and the financial performance of their organisation, it is remarkable that such a large percentage of companies appear to be taking an avoidable risk with such a key determinant of their competitiveness.
This reminds me of what I wrote on my home page:
All organizations in China work in an unpredictable environment. What few realize is that much of what determines your success or failure is completely predictable. Decades of on-the-ground experience and validated research have shown that when Westerners go to China, certain things will come up as a result of the unfamiliar mindset of the people around them.
A hitter in baseball knows the difference between a fastball and a curveball, and knows which one they’re better at hitting. Nobody should go to China without knowing the basics, or without knowing their own strengths and weaknesses as leaders and as venturers into the unknown. Why lose out for failure to prepare for what you can prepare for?
The success of any business — or, really, of any organization — boils down to how that organization stewards it precious resources: time, money and goodwill. I’ve addressed this before. What’s new about the EIU report is what it reveals about the scope and scale of the problem in global business.
Why is this crucial business issue given short shrift? It has everything to do with how humans are built.
Here is the video of the talk I gave last December at the Project Pengyou launch in Beijing, after speeches by U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, Project Pengyou founder Holly Chang, and Dr. John Fitzgerald, Beijing Representative of the Ford Foundation. Enjoy.
Granted this is a tad self-referential. Dan Harris over at the China Law Blog has [read more]
I've never seen a statement about the business value of intercultural skills as clear and [read more]
Building on this interview the gritty startup ATLAS did with me several months ago, they [read more]
Last November in Beijing I gave a talk at the American Chamber of Commerce in [read more]
The last post took a look at the high stakes involved in effective cross-border communication. [read more]
Check out this brief interview I gave with this exciting new company. I recommend you [read more]
After seeing the volume and nature of the responses my three guest posts generated, Dan [read more]
Here is the last of my three guest blog posts on the China Law Blog. [read more]
Here is the second of my three China Law Blog guest posts. If you read [read more]
Today, esteemed colleague and China Law guru Dan Harris posted the first of three guest [read more]
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