MGP research apprentice Yiran Wang recently interviewed Anne Schreiter, a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley German Department. Anne received her Ph.D. in Organization Studies and Cultural Theory with a focus on Sociology from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Her dissertation examines sense-making mechanisms of managers in the German-Chinese business world. She studied Societal and Business Communication and Sociology in Berlin, Germany as well as Chinese Language Studies in Nanjing and Shanghai.
Yiran: Hello Anne, and welcome to Berkeley.
Yiran: Your recent research is about communicative aspects of Chinese and German business cultures. Would you mind giving us a brief introduction to your research and new journey?
Anne: Sure. German-Chinese business contexts are prone to intercultural challenges as different ideas of what is considered familiar meet. A fun example of common cultural differences is a little book by Yang Liu, a graphic designer who came to Berlin from China when she was 13. She captured a selection of differences in simple, but expressive pictographs. However, established theories in international business and management literature ascribe perceived differences mainly to national belonging and neglect other origins of observed divergence. While these approaches then stay with static comparisons, in my dissertation I specifically examined dynamic interpersonal encounters of managers working in German companies in China or Chinese companies in Germany. I traced which differences the actors actually identified in their daily routines and how they perceived them. Based on that, my dissertation outlines common areas of tension at the workplace and shows how the actors deal with such situations. In this process, I identified five predominant communication mechanisms and show how the actors make sense of them. Intercultural challenges, however, can also arise within one country, as the Multicultural German Project illustrates. So I can actually use some of the methodological and theoretical approaches from my dissertation for my current research on how people from East and West Germany as well as third generation migrants experience their life in a reunited Germany and Europe.
Yiran: How did you choose your dissertation topic? What was it about the Chinese and German business world that attracted you?
Anne: I had the chance to study at Nanjing University in China for a year and also had the opportunity to talk with a businessman about interactions between Chinese and Germans in the workplace. Although there is related research on the comparison of Chinese and German communication patterns and I had taken some related courses in Berlin before, it didn’t seem to capture certain aspects of what was really happening. I was wondering which experiences businessmen and women have in diverse business settings and why management theory stopped at just comparing business styles I wanted to know why cultural differences sometimes caused conflicts and why they sometimes didn’t.
Yiran: You mentioned that there are other established theories in international business and management literature, but they failed to explain some interpersonal encounters of managers working in German companies in China or Chinese companies in Germany. Why do these theories not work and can you give specific examples?
Anne: A lot of research in this field has helped us to identify very general behavioral structures that are captured in so-called bipolar dimension models. For example, one model by Geert Hofstede claims that Chinese people tend to show collective behavior, which means that relationships are more important to them than self-fulfillment and that they tend to communicate in an indirect manner. In contrast, German people are positioned closer to individualism rather than collectivism as they communicate in a very direct manner and strive for personal goals,. There is indeed some truth to it, however, the problem with this is that these markers are solely based on national belonging and are often the onlyresource to categorize people. Additionally, knowing about these differences doesn’t really help in a face-to-face interaction: Even if a manger knows about such general differences between him or her and his or her foreign colleague, it is not quite clear how he or she should interact with him or her. While being informed might be helpful, you need to know what to do with this knowledge.
Yiran: Since nationality cannot explain all conflicts, what other possible reasons have you found?
Anne: National stereotypes are not necessarily bad or wrong. They give us hints about what we can expect in another person. However, I feel the cause of conflicts or perceived unfamiliarity is often much more diverse than nationality alone, including for instance gender, age, social background, and the specific context. We are often quick to ascribe certain behaviors to national culture, but sometimes things like corporate culture or other social aspects have a far deeper or at least an additional impact. For instance, a young female Chinese manager I interviewed told me that the marketing division at her German headquarters created a new corporate website in black and white and she felt that this wasn’t suitable for the Chinese market. She was afraid of talking to her boss, however, because he wasn’t very supportive of employee’s suggestions. The real marketing reflection proved she was correct. I also talked to her boss, who then told me that this marketing failure was also the result of his Chinese employees being too shy and indirect to talk to him due to their national culture. He didn’t consider that the corporate atmosphere might have also played a role in this situation. Another important aspect is how we judge the experienced differences. For example, a Chinese manager talked about the very direct manner of his German colleagues. He told me that he learned to like that because in his opinion it accelerates communication and he can trust the information he gets. Another Chinese employee by contrast told me that he feels that his German colleagues are rude.
Yiran: Since your research emphasizes personal interactions, rather than relying primarily on quantitative data, how do you conduct your research?
Anne: I conducted narrative interviews for about 1-4 hours each time. My interviewees included Chinese and German managers in both Chinese and German companies. These companies were usually of medium size, which means they had around 100-300 employees. They included suppliers for the automotive industry as well as solar engineering and telecommunications companies. I followed managers’ daily routines at the workplace and asked about the problems they often encountered and how they dealt with their coworkers.
Yiran: Did you get any new ideas through the conversations with these managers?
Anne: Yes, the causes for conflicts or irritation and the way people deal with them are not the same for everyone. For example, the management of a Chinese company in Germany didn’t really support new employees. While this was irritating for a young German manager in the beginning, he soon enjoyed the flexibility that came with it. However, conflicts are experienced as more severe when they pile together, for instance when a young German has to negotiate with an elderly Chinese or simply when the daily mood is not that good!
Yiran: Are there any general strategies people use in the workplace?
Anne: I could identify four general ways people deal with conflicts, I would say. The first one is adaptation, which is a quite obvious one. The managers who were truly interested in cultural differences and distinct behaviors had no problem with imitating certain patterns to better fit in the workplace and also to create a good atmosphere. However, it was important to them to still be themselves and that they didn’t have to do things they disliked or that they thought were not useful. So German companies kept their safety and quality structures in China, and Chinese managers stuck to familiar negotiation practices. That is why refusal as a mechanism is also of value. Other helpful mechanisms were acceptance and tolerance of differences. In this case, it was important that the involved managers were familiar with divergent practicesso that they could adjust their expectations; many enjoyed the challenge of finding ways to deal with that on a daily basis. That might be the reason why I mainly found accepting mechanisms in people who voluntarily chose to work in a foreign or unfamiliar environment. Finally, withdrawal made an appearance in my study, either in the form of people indeed quitting their jobs or in the form of a self-reflexive step back to better evaluate a situation.
Yiran: Do you have any further specific suggestions for people to apply these strategies in real life?
Anne: I believe people should definitely be open-minded and honest with themselves. It is normal and ok to act upon stereotypes, but when working in a foreign environment you should at least once in a while question your perspectives. I know there are some trainings and seminars aimed to prepare managers for possible conflicts in intercultural settings. However, some trainings focus too much on stereotypes and too little on personal development. I did find very stereotypical and even sometimes neo-colonial attitudes in the interview transcripts, but when talking to me many managers became quite self-aware over time. Therefore, getting to know and discussing both one’s own experiences and those of people in similar situations is often helpful, as is finding good role models. In the end, recognition and appreciation were more important to most of the interviewees than financial benefits.
Yiran: Do you have any future plans to continue your research?
Anne: Yes, I am currently also exploring the question how gender images affect interactions in the workplace. Moreover, I am doing research on experiences of people who were still quite young when the Iron Curtain fell and to what extent they generated transformational competencies or intercultural skills.
Yiran: I have one last question for you. Why did your choose Berkeley to continue your research? And why did you choose the German department?
Anne: The Department of German at Berkeley offers broader research opportunities in German studies. German studies in Europe almost solely focus on literature and linguistics, but Berkeley also pays attention to contemporary social and cultural aspects. Professor Deniz Göktürk also conducts research related to migration in Europe which incorporates my current interests.
Yiran: Thanks very much for joining us today.
Anne: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my ideas!
Schreiter, Anne (2014): Das alltägliche Fremde. Eine interdisziplinäre Analyse deutsch-chinesischer Arbeitswelten [The Familiar Unusual. An Interdisciplinary Analysis of German-Chinese Business Worlds].
Dissertation University of St.Gallen/Switzerland, soon to be published at Transcript.