With the onset of Spring in Germany, I realize that I have been here for over seven months. My first day on the job here at SAP AG in Walldorf seems just like yesterday. I still remember the feeling when I was introduced to all the different colleagues in all the different offices here in SAP’s Industry Business Unit (IBU) Oil&Gas. I totally lost myself here at the beginning, not only because there are more than 20 buildings here on the SAP Walldorf campus, but also due to the unfamiliar environment – different country, different culture, different people, different languages and different work environment in a top IT company.
I am a Chinese intern in IBU Oil&Gas and came to Germany through an international student association, the Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales (AIESEC), which provides overseas internships and projects for young people. My former mentor Steffen Reisacher was an AIESEC member who had an internship in Canada.
My first seven months here at SAP HQ have been a kind of adventure. I love it so much and appreciate everything I have experienced so far. My colleagues have been very good to me, constantly supporting and guiding me through my internship. We share happy times in the canteen and coffee corner and I’ve made a lot of friends from all over the world, since SAP is a multi-cultural, people-caring company.
Fresh from college in China, I experienced culture-shock in Europe and took a little time to get used to some customs working methods that native Europeans take for granted, but the relaxed atmosphere at SAP, together with the diverse profile of the workforce, helped me to integrate fairly painlessly.
In the course of a couple of blogs, I’d like to share some learnings with other BPXrs, giving my impressions of some cultural and social contrasts between East and West. You never know, some of my musings might also help you to prepare for upcoming meetings or business dealings with Chinese companies. At the very least, I hope you find some of the examples interesting.
Multi-cultural influences at SAP
My first internships, prior to my arrival in Germany, were in a bank and at a securities company in China. Both firms had very formal company cultures. In contrast, the ethos at SAP is forward-thinking and modern, due in many ways to the multi-cultural influences, flexible working hours and openness.
You can make friends here anywhere at anytime: in the introduction session; at lunch; in the coffee corner; at one of the many parties; and even on the bus to work.
People are young and open to discussing all kinds of interesting things. Employees can work from home with great flexibility and also enjoy the comfortable work environment in the office.
You can also talk about work around the coffee corner in the sunshine. When you have problems, you just turn to your colleagues for help or search for the answers from SAP Portal, forums, free trainings and blogs in a very convenient self-learning system.
Still, when it comes to delivery of your tasks there is an intense focus on the topic and drive for high quality results with high efficient work flow.
Emphasis on the individual v importance of society
My academic and cultural schooling and the education system I know appears to contrast starkly with that of my new colleagues in Germany. As a result, Chinese people in general have a very different way of thinking compared with Europeans. For example, there is great emphasis on the importance of the individual or the “I” in the west. But for Chinese, the “I” is not important. Family is important. Others are important and the whole society is important. In this regard, we have very close relationship with our parents, family and friends. But sometimes we will sacrifice our own needs to undertake something that doesn’t particularly interest us.
We are also educated to be friendly, modest, polite and not to be aggressive. Most of my student friends just listen to the teacher and seldom ask questions or start discussions during class. When we have different opinions, we would rather keep quiet and discuss it when there are fewer people.
In contrast, Europeans like open discussions and debates. They like to uncover different opinions and views in a meeting. By comparison, Chinese people might sometimes be perceived as too quiet during meetings. Bear in mind though that silence doesn’t mean we don’t analyze and understand an issue. We just need to get used to the western discussion style.
German systems and planning v Chinese adaptability
German workers are famous for their planning strengths. I think Germans are very meticulous. They always plan things they will be doing at a specific time on a specific day. They are also happy to establish one clear and agreed process on a project. Once the process has been created, my German colleagues rely on this systematic approach and stick rigidly to the rules.
But most Chinese people will have a plan which is not so rigid and defined. We like to adapt and adjust our plan according to the actual conditions as the need arises.
Both ways have their advantages; one is better prepared and the other is more flexible. I appreciate my European colleagues’ attention to detail and the finer points. Every time I have a question, my colleagues give me a very specific answer and even the background knowledge and other relevant information with great patience.
Questions of frankness v discretion
Germans are also very frank and direct, I feel. They raise very challenging questions during meetings with managers and others, airing conflicting opinions. Most Chinese people don’t like asking such direct questions; either because we are afraid of appearing naïve and stupid or because we don’t want to offend or embarrass the manager or colleague at the receiving end. Mostly, Chinese people would like to find the answer by themselves first and then turn to others.
I also think that German people will give you a truthful and precise answer even if the answer is negative. But in China, it’s generally considered impolite to say no or refuse others. You could say it’s because we care so deeply about others’ feelings. We don’t like to reject others. So sometimes when we mean “no”, we will find many indirect ways to deliver that answer. Ambivalent answers such as “perhaps”, “I’m not sure”, “I’ll think about it”, or “We’ll see” usually mean “no”. It might seem a little strange to westerners.
Importance of networking and relationship-building in China
Relationship-building is very important when doing business in China. You need to establish strong relationships with top management of your partner company if you want to successfully conduct business in the region.
In this regard, business entertaining is important. There are many preferred entertainment options for colleagues and clients in China, such as dining, bowling, karaoke, nightclubs, picnic outings, soccer matches, and golf.
Here are some special characteristics of business entertaining in China:
- Business is usually not discussed during a meal.
- Toasting (usually with beer) will last the whole meal. Be careful not to drink too much!
This was just a flavor of the differences I’ve seen during my experiences in China and Germany. In the next blog, I’ll take a look at many other social and cultural contrasts.