Today, we’re talking about international business in a special way. International business requires a deep level of industry insight, but also a keen understanding of the cultural differences that impact how business is done.
If you’re an American working in China or Japan for the first time, you may not realize that the way each culture thinks and reasons is quite different from your own, which can lead to frequent misunderstandings.
Our next guest, Richard Conrad, draws on his 25 years of experience living and working in Asia to explain the different ways Americans, Chinese, and Japanese think, reason, and interpret the world. He is the author of Culture Hacks. Here’s our conversation with Richard Conrad.
Richard Conrad: So, I’ve been living in Asia for about 25 years now. I came after college and I speak Chinese and Japanese, I have lived a long time in both countries. Over the years, I developed my own techniques for understanding and communicating effectively with the Chinese and the Japanese and they’re very different. I work for an American company and I’ve had a lot of American friends, and I’ve just observed over the years, not just Americans, but observed a lot of Westerners that misunderstand the Chinese and/or the Japanese, and there’s a lot of miscommunication.
I wanted to share what I’ve learned over the years, because I found these, what I call in the book Culture Hacks. I find these hacks to be very useful. They work well in practice.
The main goal is to help bridge the gap between the East and the West, the US and China and Japan. There’s a very large gap.
I just had this feeling that I wanted to write the book to share this knowledge.
About Culture Hacks
Rae Williams: Tell me a little bit about the central idea of your book.
Richard Conrad: Well, when I was trying to figure out what are the differences, how come these miscommunications and misunderstandings take place, it occurred to me that we fundamentally think differently.
That’s the key idea of the book and that’s the key takeaway here, for readers. I think, once that gets recognized, it’s quite helpful because you can learn what kind of a thinker you are. When you recognize the type of thinking that the Chinese tend to do and the Japanese tend to do, it makes interaction much better.
Rae Williams: I imagine this of course, as you outline the book, bleeds over into the business world a lot.
Richard Conrad: Absolutely. Just to get to the fundamentals, just introduce the concept to listeners, these very fundamental differences in the way that we think.
Americans and Westerners tend to believe in absolute truth, whereas in Asia, they believe in relative truth. Those are very different concepts, because we’re born and raised with this belief in absolute truth. It’s difficult to recognize and to understand that relative truth belief.
The next layer is Americans tend to reason, problem-solve, or think in a linear manner, step by step, whereas the Chinese are lateral thinkers. Instead of going from subject to object, they go from subject to subject. It’s very different.
The Japanese are intuitive thinkers. So, for them, they don’t follow logic. It’s more about feeling, and it’s feeling that they cultivate through mindfulness, or meditation, or just through decades of focus on a single skill or practice.
Then the final layer of it is the Japanese tend to be literal thinkers, which is something we’re generally not used to. The opposite is abstract. If you go to India, Indians tend to be abstract thinkers. American and Chinese end up in the middle as balance between literal and abstract.
And so, to your question about the business world, the business world or the political world, if you recognize that difference in thinking between absolute truth and relative truth, that can be very, very helpful.
Just to give a quick example, we tend to believe in absolute truth is our saying in the West, but it’s relative truth in the East.
If you visit a Chinese company, you need to recognize that often, especially if they’re private companies, they’re going to have three sets of books: one to show outside investors, one to show the tax man, one to show rating agencies. And in fact, they will have a fourth set of books, which are the real books. It’s relative truth for different audiences.
That’s just one example of how this difference in absolute truth and relative truth matters in the business world.
Rae Williams: Maybe here in the States in business, some would consider that as being dishonest, where in these cultures, that’s not what is happening. Do I understand that correctly?
Richard Conrad: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a totally different concept. If I could give a political example that’s germane to the trade war going on between China and the US right now. In 2015, Xi Jinping was in the Rose Garden at the White House and he told President Obama that China had no intention of militarizing the South China Sea.
A little bit over a year after that, the US concluded—very conclusively, clearly—that the Chinese were militarizing the South China Sea. And so, from an American perspective and belief and absolute truth, it would appear that he had been lying. That would be our conclusion.
In fact, it’s a pretty straightforward conclusion. They very much did intend to militarize the South China Sea.
From the Chinese point of view, you have to remember it’s relative truth and context matters. He was a guest at the White House. He’s not going to say something to make President Obama look bad, or to lose face. That has to be remembered.
They don’t necessarily consider that statement to be untrue. What he probably meant at the time was they had no intention of militarizing the South China Sea, but because of their history and geopolitical reality, they had no choice but to militarize South China Sea.
He didn’t articulate that. But from the Western point of view, what looked like a lie from the Eastern point of view, from the Chinese point of view, would have looked like good statesmanship and not a lie at all.
Rae Williams: Let’s hear a little bit more about your journey and just you actually living in the Asian region for the first time and what gave you some of these realizations at first.
Richard Conrad: One of the first realizations came to me when I was in Tibet. This was in the mid-90s. I was new to living in Asia. And if you’ve ever been to Tibet, it’s an extremely religious, a very holy, a very spiritual place. The Tibetan people walk around with prayer wheels that they spin all day long. Their life is actually a constant meditation. The closest analogy I could give for Westerners would be as if though we lived our whole life in church, you know how your behavior is a little different when you’re in a place of worship. That’s how they are all the time.
The whole world is their church, or their place of worship. It’s a very different philosophy.
And I was watching these Tibetan people, they were extremely poor materialistically. They were as just as poor as could be, and some of them would prostate themselves on the ground every single movement forward. They would prostrate down, pray, come back up and they would do this body length by body length and travel all around the country.
To my Western eyes, it just seemed madness. Yet as I was there observing them, they looked about as happy, more or less, as Americans. And that was a big surprise to me.
I had a revelation as I was watching this older lady spinning her prayer wheel, it was a little bit hypnotic. It’s super high-altitude. It just occurred to me that in the West, we’ve been raised to believe that the universe began 13.8 billion years ago and time has moved in a straight line from there towards today.
For more religious people. or in the past, in the West, we believe that God said let there be light and the universe began and that was the starting point. There was nothing that came before these points. These were the beginnings, and that everything came to today in a straight line. And so, we view time in terms of years linearly.
Whereas in the East, for them time is always circular.
For us it’s circular too. Our clocks go around in a circle. It’s 11:00 again. It’s Monday again. It’s the spring again. Seasons go around circularly for us, but for years, we go linearly. In Asia, the years are also circular. It just goes in a giant circle, and this makes a very big difference. Has a lot of implications.
One of them is because we have this belief in linear time, we’re able to have absolute fixed points and we can make absolute judgments anchored off of those fixed points.
But when time is circular, there are no fixed points. Everything is relative. That’s where this different belief in relative truth comes from. And I’m not a social scientist, but it’s my conclusion that our linear logic, the way we reason step-by-step came out of this belief in linear time. And that’s very, very different in most of the rest of the world. My specialty is in China and Japan.
For example, if you go back 500 years ago, China was about 50% of the global GDP. They were the dominant country in the world, but they didn’t have the scientific method, because they don’t think linearly step by step, whereas in the West, we did. We had the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution. That led to this massive growth in the West, meaning Europe and the US.
China fell from 50% of global GDP to, in the 1950s, it was down to 2%. It was because of that linear thinking that we developed this scientific method step by step reasoning and logic.
It’s because they didn’t have that, they aren’t able to build on knowledge. If you don’t have step-by-step thinking, you can’t build on top of someone else’s knowledge, the East and these countries fell so far behind.
Lessons from Japan
Rae Williams: What would you say is actually the biggest thing that you took away from the Japanese culture in particular, that we can, not even just think about in terms of the differences, but actually maybe employ in the Western world?
Richard Conrad: Absolutely. It would be intuitive thinking. The Japanese reason in an intuitive manner and the way they do that is mindfulness.
I think, when Westerners first interact with meditation, it seems like mindlessness to them, a very passive state, but that’s wrong. It’s mindfulness.
The Japanese stay very aware and very much in the moment. This is a key point of Zen. I write in the book how this gets introduced through the Star Wars movies.
If you can stay in the moment and cultivate your intuition, there are perceptions that the entire mind, not just the conscious mind, which is a very small part of our entire mind, the entire mind can become aware and you can come up with ideas and solutions and ways of doing things that the conscious mind wouldn’t be able to do. And this comes out in Japanese manufacturing. There are certain high-precision machines that only the Japanese can make. A lot of it is craftsmanship made by people that are just have decades of experience working on the same – in the same area, and they’ve just developed ways of producing of craftsmanship that can’t be imitated by robots or by computers.
And that intuition, it can come out in other areas of understanding of life. We live in the Newtonian world, which is basically the observable world that we understand. But there’s a whole new field of quantum mechanics that’s coming up that just doesn’t make sense to linear logic.
Just really briefly in quantum mechanics, one thing can be in two places at once, as long as it’s not being observed. As soon as you observe it, it goes into one place, one or the other. If it’s not being observed, it can be in two places. They’ve even shown that experimentally, but it doesn’t make sense to linear thinkers. It can make sense intuitively.
I think, this shifts into China a little bit, but China developed the world’s first quantum satellite in 2016, not the Americans, not anyone in Europe. And it was because of their nonlinear thinking that helps them to better understand quantum physics and the quantum world.
I think the key point here is that it’s important that we learn about different types of thinking. In the Japanese sense, you can learn about how to access our intuitive mind to see the world in a different way and to perceive it more clearly and to learn to rely more on our intuition.
I think in the West, we look down on intuition as unreliable, but the Japanese show that it can be cultivated. It does take a lot of work. Steve Jobs was a big proponent of using intuition, and he was a fantastically creative businessman that showed that you can use these intuitions very successfully in the hyper-competitive business world.
To answer your question, I think the key lesson out of Japan is how to develop your intuition, and that’s what I tried to explain in the book and culture heads.
Lessons from China
Rae Williams: Awesome. Okay, and of course, I have to ask you the same question about China. What is the thing that we can take from them and apply here to make our lives even better?
Richard Conrad: The Chinese are lateral thinkers instead of linear thinkers. They go from subject to subject, instead of subject to object. This is a more creative way of thinking. I think it can be creative. It’s more flexible.
As Lin Yutang says, it offers a lot more common sense than linear thinking. Let me give an example of lateral thinking. So, if someone commits a crime in China, in the West we think the punishment should fit the crime. There is the subject and then the object; the crime and then the punishment. In China, actually the punishment will be far harsher than would be deserved by the crime, and that’s because the Chinese think subject to subject.
They see the person that committed the crime and they want to punish them, but they also see the rest of society and they want to leave an example to everyone else to say, “Don’t dare do the same thing.”
And so, the punishment is not only for that person, but also to everyone around them to warn them.
In Feudal China, they would actually punish quite severely the whole family and often, the whole village, because even if they didn’t know about the crime, they should have known and they were all assumed guilty.
Another example is I think this was an interesting example, there was a contract manufacturer in China and they had a case of a lot of their workers, who would work 12-hour days, 6 or even 7 days a week out of despair, were jumping out of their dormitories. I mean, killing themselves.
When you think as a Western linear thinker, subject to object, you think, “Well, why were they killing themselves? They’re overworked. We need to give them better working conditions. Maybe lower working hours, or more vacation something.”
The Chinese lateral thinking was completely different, because they move subject to subject. Instead of thinking about the workers, they thought about the company and how bad this looked for the company. And so, their solution was they built nets around all of the dorms, so if anyone jumped then that would catch them and they wouldn’t die.
So, I think the lesson here is, number one, China is the rising power in the 21stcentury. They’re about a fifth of the global population. The US is now in a generation-defining trade war with the Chinese. And I think it’s very important that we learn to understand the Chinese and how to interact with them and how to negotiate with them and how to co-exist with them.
And If you can understand Chinese belief and relative truth and you can understand their lateral logic, it makes communication much easier and much better and more effective.
Eastern Perspective of the US
Rae Williams: From your experience, how is the US perceived and is it a good thing, a bad thing? What can we do? What can we also offer them, or even take mindset and thinking wise that might help the perception?
Richard Conrad: Well, bluntly speaking they see us as hypocrites. It comes down to this difference in absolute truth versus relative truth. Americans tend to believe and Westerners tend to believe in absolutes. And one of them is the democracy is good and what we talk about human rights.
But if I’m a Chinese person, or a Japanese person looking at the US, their countries have thousands of years of history. The US only has 250 years of history, so it’s not much for them to look back into our past and they see the blight of slavery and genocide of the Native Americans. We hold these truths self-evident that all men are created equal.
In 1776, that only meant land holding white males. In 1876, it meant something completely differently. Then in 1976, it finally included women and people of different races. Then probably in 2076, it’ll have another meaning.
We tend to believe that our truths are absolute and we’re the champions of human rights, and they see the Abu Ghraib prison crime. That was a crime, and it seems very hypocritical of us to believe that we have some monopoly on truth.
With their relative view on truth, it always depends. It depends on circumstances. The Chinese feel that taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty was a great achievement in human rights, but they do recognize they still need to improve, when probably what they have—they have a very big civil rights problem. They do have some of course, human rights problems.
But, from their perspective, don’t compare them at a lower level of development than the US is at today. It’s just not a fair comparison.
Compare when you are at similar levels of development, if you want to make that comparison.
There’s this view from Asia that Americans can be quite hypocritical and blind to their own faults, and they want to impose their morality on other people. But, if someone’s an ally, like Saudi Arabia, they can get away with human rights violations.
There just seem to be a lot of double standards to the East Asians, and I think to a lot of the rest of the world. It would be helpful if Americans would be more cognizant of that.
Advice for Americans Abroad
Rae Williams: What would your advice be to American citizens, or American people that are either living or working in Asia?
Richard Conrad: Well, can I tell you a story?
Rae Williams: Yes, please.
Richard Conrad: So, I was riding a bus in China, and this was the late ‘90s. The Chinese had just changed the law to where smoking on the bus was no longer allowed. I was, “hallelujah,” because we would get on these packed buses and the pollution was so horrific on the streets, you had to close all the windows, but people would be smoking inside. You could have 95-degree days, in a bus full of smoke. It was horrible.
So, they outlawed smoking. I was on the bus one day and this guy, this migrant worker lit up and started smoking, so I complained about it.
I got into a little bit of a fight with the bus driver, because I wouldn’t pay my fare, because this guy was smoking on the bus, and I told the bus driver to tell him to stop smoking. The guy started yelling at me, and I looked at all the other passengers on the bus and I thought they would be supporting me, because I was looking out for their interest also.
There is this very well-dressed Chinese man that said to me, “I can’t understand you Americans. You think you’re the world’s policeman trying to apply American standards to China.”
I said, “But wait. Not smoking is Chinese law.” I said, “He’s breaking the laws of the People’s Republic of China.”
It sounds funnier in Chinese. He said, “Yes, but you’re trying to use American enforcement of Chinese laws.”
And he made a really good point. He said, “Six months ago on this bus, half the people would have been smoking. Today it’s only one person. This is great progress. Stop trying to use American enforcement of Chinese laws. We’re in China.”
I think the key lesson or take away for Americans reading the book, or listening to the podcast is have an open mind, that there are different types of thinking. People think differently. Each type has its good parts and its bad parts. To recognize that and be more accepting of it.
When you’re living in a foreign country, really pause when something doesn’t make sense and ask, “Why do they do it that way?” There are generally going to be cultural, or societal, or even educational reasons for why they do things differently than we do.
And we really, as Americans with our belief in absolute truth, tend to impose our standards onto other people. The advice is to step back, pause and try and figure out what their standards are and to see what their behavior is in the context of their customs and their rules. I think that was a key takeaway.
A Challenge from Richard Conrad
Rae Williams: Awesome. Okay and a little bit different from the advice. If you had to issue a challenge to anyone who is reading your book, who is listening, who’s interested in just cross-cultural relations here in the US or over in Asia, what would that challenge be?
Richard Conrad: I think my challenge would be to, for anyone that reads the book, to ask yourself what kind of thinker are you personally and why do you think that way? Then start to recognize when you are engaging in absolute truth thinking, or in linear logic. God didn’t create a linear world. The world progresses nonlinearly.
There are some fantastic parts of linear thinking, supported the scientific method, it’s created these great institutions in the West, but it also has its downsides.
To see where that linear thinking is working and where it doesn’t work, and as we go into this acceleration and technology world that we’re in, where the changes are nonlinear, where you can think, like the Chinese what lateral thinking could be, systems-thinking, where you think of things at the whole.
The example of in Western medicine, we look at the tonsils, or the appendix and we say, “Ah, there’s no use to it. You can take it out if there’s a problem.” Or if you have a rash, you go see a dermatologist. It’s very specialized.
Whereas in China, they look at things as the whole. Maybe the tonsils don’t have a function we can quantify, but maybe it has a lateral function where it’s servicing the body as a whole, and so you don’t want to just take them out lightly. Or if there’s a skin problem, you don’t want to just think about it from the very specialized point of view of the dermatologist. You want to think about in the context of the whole body and even the whole person, even their mind.
And so, to figure out okay, I’m a linear thinker, but if I thought in a systems way, or in a lateral way, or an intuitive way, where I just suspended all judgment and simply observed and tried to quiet my mind and see what ideas popped into my head… that’s great way for developing that intuitive thinking is right when you wake up in the morning. The intuitive mind is very much engaged. It’s not thinking about the practical aspects of the day yet.
I think people have a lot of inspirations right after they wake up. Maybe challenge people to keep a notebook next to their bed and write down. When you’re asleep, your intuitive mind is absolutely percolating ideas up into your conscious mind. A lot of ideas that maybe your conscious mind was resisting during the day can come to you in dreams and when you wake up in the morning to write that down.
Try to integrate more intuitive thinking into your life. I think as I said earlier, it seems to me a bias against intuitive thinking.
I think there are real breakthroughs people can make in their life if they would be more receptive to that. So, more receptive to lateral thinking and intuitive thinking, and to try and notice when they’re thinking linearly, or absolute truth type thinking.