Cultural Differences Provide New Opportunities

With all the bad news around lately, it’s nice when something positive shows up.  Perhaps that’s why my interest was piqued when I saw an article entitled American Graduates Finding Jobs in China in the New York Times recently.

According to this article, there is a new wave of Americans moving to China to be part of the entrepreneurial boom there.  With lower unemployment (4.3% in rural areas in China, as compared to 9.4% in the United States) and a gross domestic product that rose 7.9% in the most recent quarter (as compared to the same period last year), China looks to be a land of great opportunity.

In reading through the article, and the individuals mentioned therein, several things struck me.  First, several people mentioned being hired for their “familiarity with Western modern dance”, their ability to “communicate with the Western world”, or their understanding of the social and cultural nuances of the West.

Almost all of these people are being hired to facilitate relationships between Chinese companies and Western markets.  Their knowledge of how things work in Western societies is their most important skill, and the particular domain expertise is secondary.  Building relationships between companies in different cultures can be difficult, and the people involved need to have intimate understanding of at least one of the cultures, and some immersion in the other culture as well.

Another thing mentioned in the article is that the educational systems in the two countries are different, and tend to reward different personality traits. These different educational styles, combined with societal influences, mean that people from different backgrounds tend to approach problems differently.  In recent years, we have realized that having people from different backgrounds on project teams is extremely helpful – everyone brings their own way of approaching the problem, as well as their specific technical expertise.

Since we now work with people around the world on a regular basis, we have learned to take advantage of these differences.  While others may have different ways of approaching problems, they just might see old problems in a new way.

Anyone who has a small child knows that one of their favorite questions to ask is “why?”. Why do you do this or that, and why do you do it that way, or in that order?  While sometimes there is an explanation, often the answer is “I don’t know” or “because that’s the way I’ve always done it”.  And upon reflection, you may realize there is a better, or different, way that would work just as well.

People not familiar with your culture can do the same thing for you.  By constantly asking “why”?, they make you think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it that way.  And sometimes, by making you stop to think about it, they just may make you come up with a better way to do something.

So even if you don’t want to move across the world to experience another culture, you can learn from people with different backgrounds – not only how they approach things, but maybe even how you do.

This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).

4 Responses to Cultural Differences Provide New Opportunities

  1. […] article on how Cultural Differences Provide New Opportunities was just posted over at the ACS Careers blog […]

  2. Chemjobber says:

    James Fallows pours a bit of cold water on this article here:

    Nonetheless, it’s only a bit of cold water. I suspect that American chemists with a bit of experience AND a knowledge of Chinese will find work there.

  3. chemist says:

    “Almost all of these people are being hired to facilitate relationships between Chinese companies and Western markets.”

    So let’s get this straight: Chinese PhD students and post-docs come to the US, and compete on the already weak US job market for chemists. But according to Lisa Balbes, fine arts majors and basket weavers find jobs in China.

    Since this is the _American Chemical Society Careers_ blog, maybe it would be more appropriate for her to compare the parity of Chinese (or Indian, or European) chemists finding jobs in the USA versus Americans finding work “over there”. What does this say about work visas, cultural barriers and the simple willingness of our foreign counterparts to reciprocate?

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