Bridging Cultures, Building Business


US-China Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum & Signing Ceremony
Quinn Place, CPA, CMA

Founder, Overseas Bridges

Edited by Mary Rudzinski



On Jan 21, 2011, the US-China Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum and Signing Ceremony was held at the Hilton Chicago. As the world moves closer to a global economy, these two nations have become mutually dependent. We are now engaged in more cultural exchange activities and understand each other better than we did ten, or even five years ago. As a Chinese-born US citizen who has resided in the US for almost 20 years,  witnessing  the two nations working together and seeking a better future for all of us is inspiring.  However, despite many completed business contracts, too many gaps still need to be bridged. Below are some of thoughts and observations.

1) The hearts and souls of Chinese and Americans must become closer.

If people from both nations meet at the same time, in the same place and sit together, what understandings would develop? What true differences would be found? Where would those differences be reflected?  How much do we understand and how well do we accept each other? We have heard the phrase "understand and accept each other" many times, but how is that accomplished?

These two nations have not yet achieved mutual understanding by analyzing the differences in cultural thinking patterns.  If environment determines how we think and behave, then two different cultures and social systems determine two different thinking processes. The natural result will be distinct and vastly different mindsets.  In China, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism have dominated the Chinese culture for many centuries.  "Group value" and "peace" are the core of Chinese culture. As a result, most Chinese hide their opinions to avoid conflict.  In contrast, in America, Judaism and Christianity have influenced American culture. People emphasize individualism, democracy, and equality.  People are more willing to speak out and less concerned about the "group value."

At the  forum and signing ceremony, throughout the meeting and at lunchtime, most Chinese and Americans remained segregated. First the language barrier impacted communication. Even though some Americans provided their own interpreters for communication purposes, the warmth in the American voice turned flat when translated through their interpreters. The spoken, translated word loses much meaning between speaker and listener.  Further, experience, comprehension, and mood may determine how the message is received. Much of the meaning was lost through interpreters.  For most Chinese and Americans, the joy of communication could not be shared. The atmosphere within the conference became heavy and oppressive!

Language for me personally is not a problem. Adapting to American life and customs took time, but eventually, I became very comfortable with the American style of communication. I am accustomed to how Americans communicate with each other.  Now, I had to go through "reverse cultural shock." Chatting with Chinese representatives during the meeting was a challenge without seeing any emotion in their facial expressions, however, I was determined to show my hospitality.  I initiated many conversations, but often wondered how I was being perceived.  Normally, I am a confident and social person, but I had to reposition myself mentally in this situation by readjusting my thinking. As a small group of Chinese visitors gathered in conversation, I found myself searching for a means to participate in their exchange. American business etiquette has taught me to approach a single person, or a group of three, and comment on my interest in what is being said.  After a self-introduction, I began to listen, giving others an opportunity to talk. Using this method, I was able to meet the President of Wenzhou Chamber of Commerce and the President of China General Chamber of Commerce. Over lunch, I conversed with the "Energy Saving King" of China, President Gong. While my American friends and colleagues would most definitely identify me as being ethnically Chinese, President Gong commented that I didn't appear to be Chinese. Perhaps, this is the essence of "cultural differences," reaching different conclusions by different perceptions!

Every Chinese at the Forum was among the Chinese elite. Individuals represented the political elite, Chinese universities and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.  Despite a personal desire to meet individuals on a more in-depth level, the opportunity to develop a stronger relationship was not possible. Time constraints made more personal contact difficult. To broaden the understanding of these Chinese friends, experiencing Chicago/American culture would have been beneficial.  Despite close proximity to so many Chicago sights, for example, the Chicago Art Institute and the John G. Shedd Aquarium, time simply did not allow for such a cultural lesson. Our communication, as a result, remained superficial.  For these  two nations to be "well blended" and exchange free expression of thought, future meetings need to provide such an opportunity.

2) International talent is a vital force in cultural exchange and business relations.

"China is indeed short of international talent. We cannot wait until we have enough international talent to enter the international market. Otherwise, we would have missed many good opportunities.  We have to try it out as we are moving along."

This opinion, voiced by one of the forum speakers, highlights the dilemma for China.

Currently, international talent, the ability to function in a variety of societies and the global market, is an issue for China. Chinese education has been producing many high academic performers but with poor social skills.  The Chinese education system has not been equipped to produce the talent needed for today's global economy. In addition, Chinese businesses have difficulty maintaining skilled, versatile workers because such employees are in critical shortage in the Chinese economy. The development of international talent in China lags behind the demand. (Hans Stremme)

Without this international talent the risks in the global market are great. An individual with international talent can find a proper position for any given situation. And, here, is where cultural differences can impact relations.

For example, the exchange of welcome gifts would seem to be an automatic means of establishing a rapport. However, the rules for gift giving for Chinese and Americans are very different, and not following these rules can lead to an unintended insult. When receiving a gift in this culture, Americans consider immediate opening of a gift an indication of appreciation. In China, such behavior may signal greed. In China, photographing the gift giving moment is impolite, and if business negotiations are involved, the gift giving waits.  Ignorance of such differences could impact relations, and it is rare to find individuals knowledgeable of the subtle differences in language and custom between two cultures. 

One Chinese gentleman, a graduate from the University of Wisconsin, frequently travels to the US due to his company's corporate headquarters being located in California. This man was an excellent example of international talent, capable of capturing the attention of his American colleagues with his strong social skills and genuine charisma. He was able to confidently connect with others. Since most customers do not buy a  product, but their own feelings for the product, how one makes others feel is more important that what one says! This gentleman created a feeling of international camaraderie.

3) Language quality drives the perception of a product or service.

Language use is part of any cultural environment, and usage mistakes are not uncommon when a language is a second language. Word-for-word translation is probably the most common and obvious error made in translation practice. Such errors negatively reflect on the business or individual being represented. I saw "Chinglish" commonly applied on those elites' business cards.  Chinglish is typically used to describe the poor translation resulting from a naive blending of Chinese and adopted English.  A typical example of Chinglish could be when "Automated Teller Machine" is translated to "Help Oneself Terminating Machine."

A poor translation relays a signal to one's potential customer regarding customer awareness. "If the firm doesn't take care in preparing the package, how can the customer be assured care was taken in preparing the product inside?" commented one senior-level American manager. Most consumers walk away from poorly advertised products. Effective language communicates to the consumer the value of the product. The best international companies have recognized accurate language to be critical to their success and have long utilized knowledgeable talent to market their products successfully.  Chris Brogan, social media expert, states, "the iPod blew apart a very crowded market for portable music devices. It used to be about how many megabytes of storage people had, and no one even knew what that meant. But Apple then said 'It fits a thousand songs,' and everyone got it." Accurate words can be crucial in the marketing of a product.

If China wants to enter the international market, good English skills are required. Language is a part of the overall product package. Likewise, business cards and correspondence must be presented at a professional level in order to be seriously considered in the international business community.  Americans observe the poor translation being used by Chinese, Japanese and others and "lesser quality" immediately registers in their minds. Most American consumers buy products because they feel a positive emotional response.  Emotions affect most buying decisions. Therefore, even a good product needs a great package.

4.) China is a status-driven country.

Many Chinese business elites use the title of "President" on their business cards. One person could be the President of 10 different organizations. China is a status-oriented country, and successful people are rewarded with more honorable roles in their society.  When American businesspeople address their Chinese partners, the title of President, a professional title followed by surname, is a more desirable.  Respect and recognition is being shown for their success.

The one with the highest rank should be the guest of honor in a dining setting. Likewise, an individual at a lower status should not invite someone at a higher rank to go out for lunch. Instead, one should bring a small gift and pay a visit at his/her office.  If there are some disagreements (even with any other Chinese), it is impolite to make the differences public, especially, if an American wishes to develop a business relationship.  The importance of "saving face" is paramount to gain trust and build cooperative relations with the Chinese business colleague.

5.) Advantages and disadvantages of two nations when conducting businesses.

One purpose of the Chicago forum was to analyze the advantages and disadvantages for the two nations when conducting international business. In addition, resource utilization and cooperative relationship-building was discussed. America has achieved excellence in management, technology, education, and medical expertise. American resources include rich soil, fresh air and a beautiful environment. However, from the Chinese perspective, America has some significant disadvantages as a business climate, namely, an overfocus on individual rights, powerful unions, an extreme sense of personal entitlement, overregulation and high litigation atmosphere.  Combined, these factors create an expensive environment in which to conduct business, slow new product movement into the market, and result in tremendous manufacturing costs.  In contrast, Chinese labor is more affordable than the US workforce. American businesses have found the relocation of work was more cost-effective than the relocation of workers The final result has been the loss of American job opportunities.

In addition to inexpensive labor China also offers rich natural resources, hard work ethics, and a grateful employee.  The Chinese talent base is improving, and the quality and variety of Chinese products continues to progress. The global economy clearly emphasizes the economic principle of low cost and high efficiency to produce greater rewards.  While high-tech based products, such as aeronautical and medical equipment, are better produced in the US, electrical products, shoes, and clothing are more inexpensively made in China.  The US simply is unable to compete when producing these low-tech goods. Profits motivate business people to take risks and enable them to stay in the business for a long-term growth.

6) Provide opportunities for small and medium-sized firms to enter the international market.


Another forum objective was to strengthen cooperative relations for small and medium sized firms from both nations. Large firms have their own resources to open new markets.  However, smaller firms are unable to afford the personnel cost to conduct market research. The time has arrived for a bridge to be built, a bridge which will fill the need to bring this market research to these companies.  The impact a cooperative team of Chinese and American business colleagues would have on relations between the two countries would be immeasurable. If mutual understanding and acceptance are established, the two nations can move forward and accomplish what may have seemed impossible in the past: True cooperation.

Currently, a certified leader in Chinese industry, economics and international business, is seeking American business partners in order to utilize American technology, advanced operational management, as well as high quality US-made equipment. Under his supervision, his firms have great business potential. The goals of his businesses are to save energy, reduce pollution, develop new products, convert disposable into resalable products, and preserve ecological balances.  However, sufficient knowledge to conduct business in a new business environment is lacking.  As his representative I have ability to understand their needs, communication skills to assist in the collaboration with qualified American businesses, and the numerical skills to evaluate those profitable projects.  Americans have the technological knowledge to share, and China has the market opportunity.  Together, international opportunities can develop.


Too many misunderstandings exist between America and China. The protests during Chinese President Jiang's visit in the US reflect an American attitude of separatism.  At the same time, the Chinese believe America takes advantage of Chinese inexperience, and controls their economic development.  However, adaptation to the environment, improving existing skills and expanding knowledge, should help build the future for all involved. The time has arrived to build a common ground between the two nations. While blending the two cultures into one is neither possible nor productive, understanding each other's culture creates respect and acceptance.  My current plan is to introduce American business etiquette into Chinese schools and businesses, in an effort to teach Chinese people to think globally. Hopefully, cross-cultural friendships could develop and, in the long term, foster a cooperative environment for international businesses. In addition, plans are underway to establish a Confucius Center, providing opportunities for Americans to learn Chinese culture.  Chinese President Hu, after visiting some American schools which offered Chinese language classes, expressed his sincerity towards improving relations by awarding financial assistance to those schools. My experience in these two cultures has provided me with insight into the shared market. Before us is a tremendous opportunity to work hard for mutual economic progress. As President Hu has said, "When we share world challenges together, we all will be stronger."

Stremme, Hans, "Retention in China: Lack of Talent or Lack of Leadership?",

Berado, Kate, "Ten Strategies for Success across Cultures" 2007. Retrieved from
Bergenthal, Kenneth.  "Executive Planet: Guide to China." Retrieved from
Brigham Young University. "Culture Grams" Retrieved from



Back to Blog