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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.

Tschüss

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17 Comments

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  1. Marilyn Pratt
    In the midst of a frenzy of reading about our flat or shrinking globe, the intensity of conversation around Globalization, its impact, its challenges, it is refreshing to hear that you “integrated fairly painlessly” in Walldorf.  I am eagerly looking forward to your continuing chapters.
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  2. Vijay Vijayasankar
    Your blog took me down memory lane.
    As a consultant, I have had to work in different countries and although it is less common now, I still get doses of culture shock every now and then. Some times, the culture is so different in different parts of the same country.

    I do completely agree that folks I have met at SAP Walldorf and here in US, have always been friendly and helpful and that makes it a pleasure to work with them.

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    1. Marilyn Pratt
      Anton, this is not the appropriate place for this discussion.  We have created a few months ago a place which serves to engage our ecosystem in determining standards by which we may be considered sustainable.  That area, under CSR and Sustainability is located in the wiki.  There is a specific topic discussion around an initiative called RESIST.  Please take a look there.  There is also a very specific invitation to speak about Global Reporting standards (GRI). I’ll provide links momentarily. 
      Just as we will not tolerate plagiarisms, so too, will we monitor things that sound like personal attack.  Look up Ad hominem please and you are invited to come over to the CSR wiki with your conversation.  
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        1. Anton Wenzelhuemer
          Shicong,

          I think(hope) not many people do understand my comment as a personal attack of any kind. I strongly assume that it is clear that, if anything bad at all, I misused some blog dealing with China currently positioned at a prominent place on a prominent webpage to make a statement in favor of humanity and peace.

          Shicong, if I did harm to you with my comment in any way,  I sincerely appologize. Let me tell you that I liked your blog a lot and that I am looking forward to the follow-ups. Moreover I wish you a great time for the few months left here, now that summertime comes, there will be a lot more opportunities to get to know the country and the people.

          regards, anton 

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    2. Ignacio Hernández
      Hi Anton, I cannot say if this is the place or not for your expresion, but I admire your courage. I pased part of my childhood and adolescence under a dictatorial goverment. That time had a big impact in cultural, personal and of course in business for millions of people. I am pride of you as mentor.
      Regards,
      Ignacio.
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  3. Imtiaz I
    It’s refreshing to hear from you. As i was reading, it felt a lot similar to the culture in India. About not offending others by asking questions in the meetings, about rejecting others etc. Globally we all might be at different places, but sometimes we all mean the same in different languages. Looking forward to your next blog.
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  4. Imtiaz I
    It’s refreshing to hear from you. As i was reading, it felt a lot similar to the culture in India. About not offending others by asking questions in the meetings, about rejecting others etc. Globally we all might be at different places, but sometimes we all mean the same in different languages. Looking forward to your next blog.
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  5. Mark Yolton
    I enjoyed this glimpse into the cultural similarities and differences between China and Germany. 

    I would also enjoy reading other people’s experiences or perceptions of different country business cultures. 

    It all helps us be more sensitive, aware, and effective in working well together when we understand the other person’s background and view.

    I’m looking forward to more from Shicong and others. 

    Regards,

    Mark Yolton

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  6. Richard Hirsch
    Hi Shicong,

    I can’t wait to read your other blogs. For my Master’s Thesis (long ago…), I wrote about how Confucianism influenced the behavior of Korean businessmen. I’m curious to see what you think about how culture influences processes – their design and implementation. For example, does a company have to adjust its processes for different cultural environments?

    Dick

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  7. Natascha Thomson
    Thank you for this insightful blog post. As a native German who has lived in the USA for 10 years, I can relate to many things you say.

    Germany and the USA are also very different, and many Germans who come here never allow themeselves to emerge into the American culture. Us Europeans are often raised with the arrogance that we invented culture. I have come to embrance the Californian way of seeing each culture as something unique and precious.

    I particularly like how you objectively highlight the pros and cons of cultural peculiarities.

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    1. Kieran O'Connor
      As an Irishman living out of a suitcase much of the time, I’m still coming to grips with this term culture.
      What is it?
      I’ve infiltrated Germany and don’t know ehat to do.
      Great insights. And good to know we all have different customs and peculiarities.
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  8. Alistair Rooney
    Thanks for a well written blog. One comment I have is that some of those attributes are German in particular and not really European. For example I quite like the way my German friends will not let me get away with things, that other Europeans would not challenge. You know who you are guys! 😉
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