How the USA Ambassador to China caused an intercultural incident

August 18th, 2011

Few expected a simple photo of the USA’s new ambassador to China to cause an international, intercultural incident.  But when Tang Zhaohui posted a picture he took of Ambassador Gary Locke to his Weibo (China’s Twitter) account, it generated “40,000 reposts and thousands of comments” in China.


One of the most important intercultural considerations in international business is the value of hierarchy.  The USA, along with Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany, Scandinavian countries and Austria; places a low value of hierarchy in  business.  This means there is little importance placed on rank and titles, and organizations operate with a high degree of participation by all employees, regardless of position in a company.  And yes, CEOs often get their own coffee ,and don’t really care who sees them doing it.

Additionally, politicians go to great lengths in those countries to show that they are an average joe (consider George W. Bush playing down his Ivy League credentials).  Last year, my Italian partner attended a Parliamentary event with me, and was shocked when former Prime Minster of Canada Joe Clark lined up with the rest of us plebes to get a plate of lunch from the buffet.

In China; like Russia, India, and many Middle Eastern countries; observing hierarchy is critically important, as well as giving off the signals that indicate the appropriate level of hierarchy accorded to your rank. When doing business in China, it is vital to observe the importance of rank, and to follow a more formal protocol in business interactions.  Subordinates are more likely to follow (and require) specific directions, rather than being comfortable taking initiative. One person will speak on behalf of the organization, and a collaborative approach to external communications is rare. These are also cultures where the concept of preserving face is paramount.

Understanding how to conduct business within a culture that places a high value on hierarchy has more than the impact of “being polite.” Intercultural values such as hierarchy form our unconscious assumptions and attitudes, and drive the “rules” and outcomes of business engagement.

Fortunately for Locke, his position and authority is well known in China.  Therefore, his self-sufficient behaviour drew a positive response from the Chinese public, who are accustomed to their own bureaucrats’ grandstanding.  However, a less well known senior business executive to China would do well to practice behaviour that reinforces their high level status.  Why? Because Chinese decision makers (the ones you want to meet) will not deign to engage with anyone that they perceive to be junior to them. A few simple tricks:

  • Dress up.  Chinese have a mental image of a successful business exec (male & female), and that includes a sharp suit and nice watch.
  • Control the conversation from your team.  No matter how interactive and collaborative your meetings are at home, advise your staff not to speak at meetings with Chinese decision-makers, unless you invite them to.
  • Always be the first person to enter or leave a meeting room.
  • If a group picture is taken (and it probably will be), make sure you are front and centre.

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