East and West: Overcoming stereotypes

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” The opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s famous Ballad of East and West, written 125 years ago in 1889, are familiar to most of us. We in the localization business are committed to helping our customers overcome the language and other barriers that still separate East and West today. And yet, it seems that we often encounter difficulties ourselves. This was the topic of a panel discussion I moderated at Localization World in Bangkok earlier this year. Representatives from language services companies in both the East and the West came together to discuss some of the stereotypes and the practical challenges they sometimes present.

The first challenge we had to take on was that of the concept of a stereotype. We all recognize that stereotypes are inherently unfair, and yet there is a sense in which they are not altogether unhelpful. It really is true that, in general, Americans (like me) are too loud, too direct and too informal when seen from the perspective of many other cultures. And it really is true that the cultural predispositions of many Asians to avoid causing others to “lose face” can result in severe communication problems when combined with the direct Western approach to problem resolution. So with these cultural characteristics as a backdrop, we explored several areas that often give rise to difficulties between us, inhibiting our ability to serve our customers effectively.

As we began to address this challenge, we recognized that we all need to do a better job of seeing ourselves as others see us. As Westerners, we often pride ourselves in being direct, yet this is frequently perceived as simple rudeness by others. We are also often in a hurry — too focused on the goal to acknowledge the personal aspects of any business relationship. This can lead to a very confrontational approach to problem-solving and a tendency to assign (or avoid) blame when things go wrong. And lastly, we tend to lack self-awareness, being slow to recognize differing cultural expectations or the way we are transgressing cultural norms. The Asians in the group also helped us to see that our view of “Asia” as being “all the same” on some level was also part of the problem with our approach.

Meanwhile, we also addressed typical Asian characteristics that are easily misunderstood by Westerners. There often seems to be a hesitancy to ask questions or seek clarification. There also seems to be more emphasis on group consensus and what appears to be an avoidance of individual responsibility. As Westerners desiring to help other Western companies overcome these cultural barriers, we acknowledged that we need to make a paradigm shift ourselves. Rather than immediately perceive these kinds of interactions through our Western-centric interpretation grid, we need to cross the divide ourselves, recognizing that we are not experiencing passive resistance, but rather a non-Western approach to constructive and respectful cooperation. At the same time, our Asian colleagues need to become more aware of Western expectations and take communication risks that would not be “acceptable” in their home cultures. Cooperation that is truly respectful needs to include a degree of directness and even confrontation that may make them uncomfortable.

This exercise was important, because it also presented a sort of “meta-stereotype,” meaning a preconceived understanding of the word “stereotype” that tended to inhibit dealing with the very real barriers to cross-cultural connection. We discovered that in an effort to avoid giving offense, we were trying to pretend that there really are not any barriers. We finally recognized that the only way forward is to acknowledge the difficulties and reach out across the barrier to jointly find a solution. We dealt with several specific cases.

The first case had to do with clarity of instructions. One of the common sticking points in any project has to do with clearly defining and setting expectations. And while this is not a problem that is limited to East/West collaboration, it does seem to be much more prevalent when the customer and the vendor are on opposite sides of that invisible line. The problem is that the natural cultural assumptions on both sides do not hold. A Western project manager will often assume that the vendor will use some initiative and even creativity in “reading between the lines.”

In part this is due to a desire not to micromanage, but it also interacts with a second assumption — the assumption that a cooperative vendor will ask for clarification if the instructions are ambiguous or incomplete. However, in many Asian cultures, questioning the instructions is tantamount to criticizing the “boss,” causing an unnecessary loss of face. In other cases, there may be an assumption on the part of the vendor that they are expected to understand the instructions, and there is a hesitancy to admit  this perceived incompetence. Either way, a simple communication gap can expand into a project-wrecking fissure. Both parties need to recognize the danger here and get outside their comfort zones.

The second case had to do with problem resolution. It is a simple fact that problems crop up in localization projects just as they do in other types of projects. And when the pressure is on, it is very easy to fall back into a default mode of thinking that does not acknowledge that our own “default” is not universal. A Western project manager will be very driven to resolve the problem at any relational cost. In some cases, there is a focus on assigning blame, even though this is rarely helpful at this stage.

The result can be a directness that spills over into rudeness and a confrontational approach that is counterproductive. A Western vendor may simply rise to the challenge and become just as confrontational in return, while still working toward an ultimate resolution that pleases all parties. As we explored this kind of conflict, we decided that a “stereotypically Asian” response might look very similar on the surface, yet would be far different in terms of outcome. The Asian might respond in a defensive manner to avoid losing face. His or her “default” mode of thinking involves always giving the opposite party a way out, and when the Western project manager does not do that, it represents a much more serious and personal threat than it would in the Western mode of thinking. So again, even well-meaning efforts to identify root causes and solve problems may result instead in an escalation of tension and a loss of relational capital.

The third case had to do with contractual issues, and this was a harder topic to deal with. This is because contractual provisions are not always understood the same way in different jurisdictions. From a Western perspective, there is real concern about whether a nondisclosure agreement or noncompete clause will be enforceable in certain Asian countries. There are also concerns about Asian companies, especially those in China, making use of lower-paid and less-qualified translators in remote areas after winning the business based on a more qualified set of translators.

From the Asian perspective, there are plenty of examples where payment has been withheld or delayed for some reasons that (at least to them) do not seem warranted. A simple Google search will reveal that this is not limited to or even frequent in the localization business, per se, but it still introduces uncertainty into the contract negotiations. Here again, though, we determined that the way to overcome these fears was for both parties to work hard at building the relationship on the other party’s terms — a sort of commitment to meet each other in the middle, even if we’re coming from the opposite sides of the world.

This whole topic grows in importance daily. We constantly read about the growing economic importance of Asia on the world stage. As language vendors, we have seen Asian target languages increase as a proportion of our overall business activity, and many expect Chinese and other Asian languages to become important source languages over the next several years. Much of our panel discussion in Bangkok involved success stories in which those East/West barriers were overcome to the benefit of all concerned.

There is plenty of motivation to do so. There is an important (though shrinking) cost advantage in Asia, and companies that can effectively tap into the highly educated workforce there can gain significant competitive advantages. These advantages included cost, but also increased capacity, increased time zone coverage and broader language capabilities.

We also recognized legitimate concerns that do complicate business cooperation between East and West. Issues such as taxation, regulatory compliance, registration, ownership and other areas where the rule of law that is taken for granted in the West may be less predictable in some Asian countries. We agreed, though, that while these may be reasons for caution, they also present opportunities — opportunities for us to establish strong relationships with our Asian partners so that we can then jointly help our customers address some of these challenges.

Our actual panel discussion closed with a fairly detailed case study of how some of these barriers were overcome and the benefits of pushing through them. Tess Medina of data services provider Chrisian walked through the history of her company’s business development efforts in China and Myanmar. She discussed each area in terms of things such as labor cost, spoken English ability, availability of well-educated staff, access to internet and other technology infrastructure. Chrisian invested heavily in the “relational capital” necessary to instill such corporate values as service excellence and customer satisfaction that has led to a 25-year success story in China, as well as ten years of solid performance in Myanmar before political instability forced them to close that operation. She closed with a very encouraging insider’s assessment of the opportunity:

There is an increasing supply of skilled and well-educated labor in China, both for translation and for all the production tasks surrounding it.

Costs are increasing, but at a manageable level.

Communication structure and internet access are very good and improving in most areas, though still subject to some government control and filtering.

The work ethic is very good, and once there is a solid basis for relational trust, productivity is high.

Spoken English ability continues to be a problem in many areas, but the situation is improving.

The general sense of the discussion afterward was that these characteristics describe the situation in many other Southeast Asian countries as well.

So in some ways this is where we started. We often quote the first line of Kipling’s poem, but the closing stanza puts it in quite another light.

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, 

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.

Kipling appears to be saying exactly what we concluded in our panel discussion — that when two parties determine to overcome differences and work together as equals, the benefits can be enormous.