Professor Wang and the importance of going “Back to Zero”

I just wanted to share some reflections on 3 months in Saudi Arabia and, in particular, to doff my cap to an elderly gent and leading authority on Confucianism, Professor Wang, who I met on an international study trip to China as part of my MBA a couple of years back.

His sage words of advice have been tattooed on the inside of my brain and, if my project out here is successful, it’ll be in large part thanks to him (as well as to a select band of CommScrummers who’ve graciously offered their wisdom when I’ve turned to them as a sounding board for my ideas). The essence of what he said was this…

If you’re going to truly understand Chinese culture, you have to have a “Back to Zero” mentality. Chinese culture, he asserted, is based more on abstract thought than a strict philosophy and, as such, it is simply not possible to explain or interpret it through western-style philosophical discourse.

As a linguist by background (my first degree was in German), I could instantly relate to that. Fluency in a foreign language has nothing to do with speaking like a native; it’s the point at which you actually start to think in the second language. As long as you use your mother tongue as your frame of reference, nuances will always have the annoying habit of getting lost in translation.

It’s been a valuable lesson to keep in mind here in Riyadh, given that Saudi Arabia, too, is an archetypal high-context culture with many similarities to China. For example, for the Chinese concept of “guanxi”, simply substitute the Arabic word “wasta” (it’s fundamentally the same thing – all about the clout of your network!).

The culture here emphasises the relational over the transactional, the personal over the professional, and the non-verbal over the verbal – all valuable experiences to sharpen the antennae when I eventually land back on the shores of good ol’ Blighty.

More importantly than that, though, they reinforce the notion – touched on in many previous CommScrum posts – that there are no right or wrong answers. There’s only “different” or “more/less appropriate”.

Having been accused in the past (quite fairly) of being more concerned with being “right” than anything else, that’s the most valuable lesson of all, and one that I hope will have rounded off a few more of my rough edges by the time I return.


3 thoughts on “Professor Wang and the importance of going “Back to Zero”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Professor Wang and the importance of going “Back to Zero” « Live Long and Prosper --

  2. commscrum

    Cultural relativism has its advantages–but also can have formidable costs, particularly when sitting in a culture that has fundamentally different values around discrimination, workplace behaviors, and personal expression.

    Indeed, I’d say the biggest issue around business culture worldwide is the extent to which global standards trump local norms, and the process through which global standards are arrived at.

    There may not be much one can do about this–but it is important to always keep it in mind.




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