Culture Clash: When East Meets West

Feature Article | August 24, 2010 by Manfred Buchner

Way of Living: Indiviualism vs. Collectivism (figure 2)

Differencies between East and West: Ways of Living (artwork: Yang Liu)

A round of golf, a visit to an art auction, or a foot massage at a health club are hardly important between business partners in the Western world when it comes to winding up a business deal. Not so in China. Here, close personal attention, mutual understanding, and harmony are as vital in business dealings as they are in personal life.

On the professional level, different mentalities and modes of behavior can easily lead to misunderstandings between Chinese and Westerners. The confusion is apt to begin during introductions: The Chinese say their family name and then their personal name; Westerners do it the other way around. In her pictograph series, Ost trifft West (East Meets West), graphic designer Yang Liu provides an intercultural guide to avoiding such blunders.

Born in Beijing in 1976, the German-Chinese artist moved with her family to Paderborn in northwest Germany at the age of 13 and later to Berlin. She returned to this city five years ago after years spent abroad in Singapore, England, and the United States. In her pictographs, Liu – whose works are exhibited in museums all over the world – compares different mentalities and modes of behavior in Chinese and German culture. Dots, dashes, and lines depict opinions, ways of interacting, values, and mutual prejudices. The aspects of professional and private life covered are familiar and widely varied, ranging from your self-image, your boss, leisure time, eating habits, and noise to opinions, restaurants, and transport.

The pictograph entitled “The Self” (Figure 1) provides a key to the differences in mentality between East and West. It shows a large person against a blue background next to a small person against a red background. Blue is the German perception; red the Chinese counterpart. The message of “The Self” is clear: The individual plays a far more important role in German culture than it does in Chinese culture. This aspect emerges in many other pictographs in the East meets West series, such as the comparison entitled “Ways of Living” (Figure 2). While a single person is in the blue field, a whole row of people holding hands is in the red field. Community and solidarity, the image tells us, have absolute priority in China.

read on: Ways to express Opinions and tackle Problems

The Self (figure: 1)

figure 1: The Self (artwork: Yang Liu)

Approaches to solve a Problem

figure 3: Approaches to solve a Problem (artwork: Yang Liu)

Solving problems

Yang Liu also depicts the two cultures’ contrasting approaches to solving a problem. While Germans steer straight toward the problem and start sorting it out, the Chinese consider problems to be as moveable as people; so they tend to hold back and wait for the most appropriate moment to tackle them (Figure 3). Consequently, the Chinese problem-solving process can take a lot longer than Westerners are used to.

When it comes to communication, expectations also differ. Germans, says Liu, find it relatively easy to express their opinions (Figure 4). They generally come straight out with them. Asians are different. Yang Liu, who chooses a winding path to reflect the Chinese mentality, explains: “The Chinese do not want to startle their counterparts by voicing their own opinion. In Chinese society, people who express their opinions directly are often perceived as being impolite.”

read on: Types of Body Language

Express one's Opinion (figure: 4)

figure 4: Express one's Opinion (artwork: Yang Liu)

Annoyance (figure: 5)

figure 5: Annoyance (artwork: Yang Liu)

Liu observes similar differences in body language, as depicted in “Annoyance” (Figure 5). On the face on the blue background, the corners of the mouth are turned down: If a German is annoyed with somebody, he or she will show it. A Chinese person, on the other hand, can be equally annoyed but will continue to smile – all according to the motto: save face, stay polite, don’t bother others with your feelings.

Why did the artist choose pictographs as her medium? “Every country and culture uses symbols. They are easy to understand. I attach great importance in my work to reducing things to a minimum,” says Liu. When asked what “typically German” traits she has adopted in her own life, she does not hesitate for long: “I am very German in my approach to work. But when it comes to emotional decisions and human interaction, I am more Chinese.”

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