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Pet Sins May 2006

Asian cultures and the issue of compromise

I read the article Cultural factors for the discrepancy between East Asian male and female outmarriage and I must say I concur with the writer's observation on the East Asian expectation of reciprocity in social interactions. Actually, it is not just East Asian culture. At least some South Asian and Southeast Asian cultures also operate by a "give-and-take" approach in even the most casual interactions.

To give an example, I used to work in an environment with people from many different countries. A Chinese manager and a white American manager were having a disagreement on how a certain project was to be done. The Chinese manager conceded one point the American manager made. In the Chinese manager's view, and the view of his Asian coworkers, since he compromised on one point raised by the American manager, the American should now reciprocate by compromising on an issue raised by the Chinese manager. And then we will eventually meet halfway and have a resolution.

Unfortunately, the American didn't play by the same rules and didn't back down one bit - he had his idea of the right way to do things, and didn't think he should compromise it. The Chinese manager's boss, a man from Germany, watched the exchange in horror, and said that the Chinese man was "stupid" to have given way to the American. The German too, believed in sticking with his point if he truly believed it was right, instead of giving away concessions as part of a buying-and-selling model.

This is not about who's right and who's wrong. Nor do I mean to make generalizations about all Chinese/Germans/Americans behaving a certain way. It is just an interesting example about how different cultural expectations can result in misunderstandings in the workplace.

2003