Culture Clash – When To Be (and Not Be) Proactive


One often talked about cultural difference between American and Chinese cultures is being proactive. As an American, it’s easy to place a high value on being proactive and to denigrate those are not as being timid or weak of heart.

Early bird in Kuala Lumpur Zoo looking for a worm, but there’s only JiaYou (moments later, the bird pecked at her!)

Just consider old adages such as “The early bird gets the worm,” and “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and the classic Latin “Fortune favors the bold”. They attest to this value American and Western societies in general hold that it is better to take action and bear the risk of failure in order to gain the greater prize.

But this is a perfect example of not understanding each others’ cultures.

Earlier this week, I experienced frustration with JiaYou, and it took a moment for me to recognize my American cultural bias and withhold judgment. JiaYou and I were to meet at my office for a holiday party. The office is fairly casual, especially since there was a holiday party going on, and reception already knew her from previous visits. When she called me to tell me she had arrived, I was already in conversation with a colleague, and with the surrounding noise, I didn’t hear the call.

When I finally checked my phone, I realized that she had called several times and left text messages, the tone of which clearly showed that she was annoyed that she hadn’t been able to reach me. Eventually I came to reception and found that she was impatiently waiting there for me to pick her up.

My immediate response to her annoyance was my own annoyance. My thinking was that she had already signed in, that reception had already recognized her and did not prevent her from entering the office. And JiaYou could easily see where the party was just down the hall from all the activity and noise.

But for some reason, I thought, she just sat there and expected me to come and take care of her.  I thought that she was too shy and timid to do things on her own, even as basic as taking the initiative to look for me. Using my own American value system, I thought that if our positions were reversed, I would just go into the room and look for her.

But taking a step back and talking to her about her thought process, I understood that in her mind, she was showing respect for my place of work and did not want to do anything inappropriate, especially since on a previous occasion she was required to sign in and wait for me to get her. So in actuality, she was being considerate, not wanting to take the chance she would do something wrong, and I was the disrespectful one, since I was not attentive to her arrival.

Looking back on our relationship, I can see many occasions where this culture clash came up. In China, I’m sure that on many occasions I was considered to be rude, obnoxious foreigner and JiaYou had to intervene to repair possibly damaged relationships (possible topic for a China Flashback post).

But now that we are living in the U.S., how do I encourage JiaYou to be more proactive?

Cultural differences aside, one is greatly disadvantaged in U.S. culture if one does take the initiative. From finding a job and building personal wealth, to maintaining one’s health, to filing tax returns, or just dealing with any process oriented system, those who are not proactive usually find themselves far worse off than those who take the initiative.



我跟AddingOil的确还有很多地方需要磨合。 无论是饮食文化,还是工作方面的待人处事,我们都需要磨合。举个简单的例子: 美国人一年四季到餐厅都喜欢喝冰水,但中国人一年四季到餐厅都喜欢喝热茶或开水。这不是我一朝一夕就可以改变的,这些文化已经根深蒂固,所以最好的办法就是理解对方的文化并且尊重对方。



Let us know what you think and share your experiences!