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Professor Ang looks at the place where business and culture intersect and finds that traders need a sensitive antenna to adjust regionally as well as by country

Professor Ang looks at the place where business and culture intersect and finds that traders need a sensitive antenna to adjust regionally as well as by country

By Siah Hwee Ang*

Cultural difference is commonly cited as a key challenge for businesses operating overseas.

There is a whole lot of advice going around about how a business should align with a local culture in order to boost its profile and maximise returns.

Businesses with a good product/service to offer often have to balance this degree of customisation, as it can mean a shift in the proposition and perhaps even the business model.

Nonetheless, to align a business’ products/services to local culture and taste is far more complex than that.

Only products matter

Almost every business strategy discussion begins with a product/service.

Isn’t it always the case that a good product/service will find a market? Probably.

The question is more about the degree to which you need to customise your product/service for a particular market.

Either way, it is fair to imagine that potential customers will recognise a quality product/service, and through that recognition a market is created.

Obviously this logic becomes too simple when it comes to conducting business abroad.

National cultures matter too!

Our simplest way to deal with the complexity of national cultures is to simply base the distinction on individual countries.

However, it is clear that in a large country, like that of China, the nature of cultures can be overly complex.

But given that China is predominantly ethnic Chinese (ethnic Chinese constitutes 91.5% of Chinese population), we also tend to assume the country consists of a single culture, even though China also contains 55 minority ethnic groups.

One common understanding is that Chinese businesses do incorporate cultural elements into business dealings, such as having a preference for the colour red and the number ‘8’.

Do religion and belief matter?

Some of you may be aware that a New Zealand businessman (Mr. Blackwood) was arrested in Myanmar last November, for insulting Buddhism in his drinking establishment’s poster.

The poster showed a Buddha wearing DJ headphones. Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country and the image upset many people.

Mr. Blackwood and his two local partners are accused of breaching the Religion Act in Myanmar.

Under the Act, anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be punished by a maximum of two years in jail, with another two-year penalty for those who try to insult religion through the written word.

I’m sure it’s an honest mistake on the part of Mr. Blackwood.

Having a Buddha on the poster makes perfect sense in Myanmar. The DJ headphones part is just trying to be cute, and a poster like this is something we see often here in New Zealand.

The poster however is a no-go in Myanmar. The reactions from Buddhists have been too strong for the authorities not to take any action.

The trial is still ongoing and given Myanmar’s judicial system, the case is likely to drag on for months.

Cultural sensitivity in business

The Blackwood case further demonstrates the complexity of culture, which in this case has juxtaposed with religion and belief.

We should ask the question, how far should alignment with cultures go?

As far as you can, but unless you know the deep roots of these cultures, try to stay on the safe side.

As New Zealanders come back from our summer break, you might find that your interaction with your Chinese counterparts may have been sporadic, as some of them are on their spring festive break.

You can also count on them not to respond at all from 18 February to 24 February. The Lunar New Year’s (often called the Chinese New Year) Day this year falls on the 19 February, when the year of the Goat starts. Some also call this the year of the Sheep depending on which part of China, though in Mandarin it’s the same character.

This is the period that you will see the colour red and the number ‘8’ being used in all ways possible.

And to the extent of being culturally sensitive, it does not take more than recognising these to show our appreciation to our Chinese counterparts.

To sign off, I wish Mr. Blackwood well, and hope he will be back in time for the Rugby World Cup (as he hopes) or before.

To ethnic Chinese who are reading this article, and many of you who come into contact with China on a day-to-day basis, Happy Lunar New Year! 恭喜发财 (gong xi fa cai)!万事胜意 (wan shi sheng yi)!


Professor Siah Hwee Ang holds the BNZ Chair in Business in Asia at Victoria University. He writes a regular column here focused on understanding the challenges and opportunities for New Zealand in our trade with China. You can contact him here.

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blasted sheep following everything :(
monkeys are so much more interesting.
although girlfriend is horse so I've just admitted to myself that her headlong rushing into things and not really knowing isn't going to change...