Battle of the email cultures

This week I vent a little about Chinese business culture, specifically, the severe under-usage of email. Yes, I’m a reformed (reforming?) management consultant / investment banker, so my email needs are admittedly higher than average. But still! Pre-meeting agenda-setting emails and post-meeting next-steps emails should be basic “musts”, no?

Read it here or on China Daily:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-08/26/content_11205559.htm

I think of myself as being Chinese through and through. From my love of mystery dishes that frighten most of my foreign friends (like “mao xue wang”) to my crimson-colored passport (often an impediment to traveling abroad), I’m the “real deal,” despite having spent many years overseas. But I do go through bouts of culture shock – or culture friction, to put it more lightly – in my own country, especially when I have to get down to business with “real Chinese.”

I’ve only worked for western companies and never in China, so business is the area where I feel the biggest cultural chasm. There are many subtleties to get through when bringing western- and Chinese-minded colleagues together, but the most obvious point of difference is over the use of email.

I like to conduct my business over email. Real Chinese don’t.

Email holds a special place in the heart of corporate America. My cynical former boss liked to joke, in words unsuitable to print verbatim here, that no small bodily function happens in an American company without somebody sending an email about it.

It’s true. From the broad avenues of New York to the hilly pavements of San Francisco, you see people constantly on their Blackberries (or, more appropriately, “Crackberries”) firing off meeting notes from a just-concluded sales pitch, answer the boss’s demanding calls, or looking up the venue for a client dinner on Google Maps. In an American workplace, emails are used to notify people of upcoming meetings and projects, include or exclude various parties, set agendas and assign responsibilities.

Sometimes I laugh about how typing out a few lines on email eludes us into thinking we’ve gotten actual “work” done, but mostly I like the system. Emails keep me organized.

Here in China, Blackberries don’t really exist yet and email is a lesser-favored tool in the workplace. Technology curve aside, there’s certain casualness about getting things done in China. People don’t like to put things explicitly in writing (case in point: contracts), preferring phone calls – or even text messages – instead.

Last week, I collaborated on a project with counterparts at a “real Chinese” company. Day two into the project, I found myself panicking when none of my local counterparts replied to a project proposal I sent out. It had been a whole twenty-four hours. Did they not check their emails yet? Had they read my proposal but not understood? Did they disagree and want to do something else? Whatever the case, why wouldn’t someone just hit the “reply” button to let me know?

When the team finally sat down to discuss in person, I learned that everyone had received and read the proposal. They just didn’t think it was necessary to add to the massive mound of electronic couriers already floating in cyberspace. Either way, the project would’ve gone off fine. We simply came to the table with differing expectations about how we communicate. Now I’ve learned.

The funny thing about email is that people who aren’t accustomed to doing business this way also haven’t had the “How to represent yourself well in email” tutorial. I got mine in university. After the initial excitement of opening the acceptance letter to my dream school, I found a form asking me to choose my “@school.edu” email addresses. All three of them.

Who needs three different email addresses at one school? Later, I learned that having three addresses lets you present yourself to different people in different ways. For your friends, “coolcat@school.edu” is pretty neat. For your potential future employer, “joe.smith@school.edu” is much more appropriate. The third one is just a spare.

How I wish I could’ve imparted this simple lesson – that your email address speaks to your professional credibility when you work with foreigners – to a job candidate whose resume I once reviewed. Pity, but I never did have the chance to meet or work with “loveangelrun@hotmail.com.” I wonder why.

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