The Big Idea

In many, if not most, human situations, there is no clear-cut “answer.” A situation can be viewed from many different perspectives and examined through various lenses.

Growing up in Taiwan, I received a classical Confucian education. In Asian thinking, context is critical: Understanding one’s circumstances, or context, and then acting appropriately, is the key to wisdom. Consider the following statements, both taken from The Analects of Confucius:

At court, when conversing with the under ministers, he was affable; when conversing with the upper ministers, he was respectful. In front of the ruler, he was humble yet composed. [10.2]

The Master said: “How straight Shi Yu was! Under a good government, he was straight as an arrow: Under a bad government, he was straight as an arrow. What a gentleman was Qi Boyu! Under a good government, he displayed his talents. Under a bad government, he folded them up in his heart.” [15.7]

In these scenarios, the actions are dictated by the context, not the actor.

The Scenario

It was spring 2020. Ben Zhang, a 28-year-old Ivy League graduate armed with an MBA from a top-tier American business school, was six months into his new job at a leading New York-based global investment firm. Born in the bustling Chinese province of Jiangsu, he had spent the better part of two decades working to achieve what he had. Zhang had made the most of his U.S. education, remaining curious and open-minded about his new country: He had even come to appreciate his American classmates’ combative jousting in the classroom, despite the stark contrast of such behavior with Chinese classroom norms. Well-liked by his college peers, Zhang had nevertheless felt most comfortable with other Asian and Asian American students. Still, by the time he entered graduate school, he had begun to feel at home in America.

The past three years, however, had been difficult. The Trump administration had swept in like a winter wind. Zhang found the administration’s anti-immigrant stance deeply unsettling, and its relentless hostility to China — evident in its ongoing trade war, banning of Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, and repeated accusations of Chinese theft, cheating and spying — made Zhang so anxious that he often had trouble sleeping.

The Temperature Rises

With the arrival in early 2020 of COVID-19 in the United States, the situation had further deteriorated. The coronavirus had emerged in winter 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei Province, and U.S. President Donald Trump routinely referred to the deadly new illness as the “Chinese virus,” “the plague from China” and the “Kung Flu.” He and members of his administration accused the Chinese government of having intentionally caused the virus’ global spread. Zhang was alarmed by increasingly frequent reports of violence against Asian Americans.

Accidental Meeting

Zhang was already feeling stressed when, on 20 March 2020, his firm ordered all employees to work from home, in accordance with a mandate from New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Isolated in his small apartment, Zhang found his days of online work meetings wearisome. One day in mid-April, however, he found himself looking forward to a meeting on high-tech investment opportunities in Jiangsu. Indeed, the meeting proved lively and interesting, and Zhang was able to offer a number of valuable insights into the province and its business norms.

As the meeting drew to a close, its attendees logged off one by one. Soon, only Zhang and two other colleagues remained online. The more senior of the two, perhaps unaware that his computer’s camera and audio were still accessible to all attendees, commented that he was glad to see that there was finally some innovation coming out of China. A younger colleague, whom Zhang knew from recent new-hire orientation sessions, laughed as he stood up and stretched. He, too, was clearly unaware that Zhang could see and hear him. “Well,” he said with a chuckle, “innovation is easy when all you have to do is steal technology from America!” The two men’s laughter was abruptly truncated as their cameras flashed off with the meeting’s official end.

Cultural Stereotypes, Personal Feelings

Zhang sat in the silence of his living room. He was furious. Although the comment hadn’t been directed at him, he couldn’t help but take it personally. Was this what Americans thought of Chinese people — that they were thieves and cheaters, incapable of coming up with their own ideas? He sent a group text message to his two best friends from college: Sam Lie, a Chinese American now working for a Chicago law firm, and Tim Park, a South Korean engaged at Samsung’s U.S. headquarters in San Jose, California. “Americans are so racist,” Zhang wrote. “A couple of my colleagues were just laughing about how Chinese innovation is, in the words of one of my associates, just ‘stealing U.S. technology.’”

Zhang set down his phone and stared at it. Agitated, he got up and went to his computer. He hastily drafted an email to his company-assigned mentor: “I just heard two colleagues joking about how Chinese people steal American technology,” he wrote. “I find these sorts of racist comments offensive. I would like the firm to take action by officially condemning these statements, and I would like HR to speak to the two individuals involved.”

His mentor wrote back almost immediately: “I’m in a meeting … maybe we can talk later? This could just be two guys being insensitive in exercising their right to free speech a political statement, not a racial statement …? Not sure we need to get the firm/HR involved. The guys may have been thinking of something like this recent article about Chinese IP theft.”

Before Zhang could respond, his phone buzzed. It was his friend Sam, the lawyer. “I’d put the whole thing out of your mind,” Sam wrote. “It’s just one stupid comment. Nothing will come of it and nothing good will come of you making a federal case out of it.”

Zhang sighed. His phone immediately buzzed again. This time it was Tim. “I totally disagree,” Tim wrote. “Ben should speak up about this kind of idiocy. I’m sick of seeing Chinese people stereotyped with this B.S. This is not a joke, and it needs to stop. Asians are being targeted and hurt.”

Now Ben’s computer dinged with another email. It was his mentor. “I think I was too hasty in my last message,” he wrote. “I was in an online meeting and also trying to help my 9-year-old daughter with her schoolwork (her school is closed because of the virus). Let’s talk about this on the phone.

The Resolution

Zhang and his mentor, Jim, spoke on the phone later that evening. Zhang explained the deep concern, offense and even fear he had felt for the past three years — and especially over the past few months. The conversation was eye-opening for Jim; it had never crossed his mind that the political atmosphere might have affected Zhang. On the other hand, he pointed out that the conversation Zhang had overheard had been meant to be private; he was just an accidental eavesdropper. In any case, Jim said, could the two really be condemned for a couple of offhand passing comments?

Zhang listened thoughtfully as he considered what to do next. In his experience, Americans tended to settle disagreements on a person-to-person level, whereas Chinese people tended to call in authority figures for adjudication. He also suspected that demanding punitive action could well end up hurting him the most. In the end, the two decided that Jim would speak to the young meeting attendee’s higher-ups, suggesting that they have a conversation about issues of cultural sensitivity. Beyond that, no action would be taken.

The Lesson

There are some important communication lessons to be drawn from this scenario; for example, don’t attempt to resolve thorny, nuanced issues via email; try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes; and avoid making sweeping generalizations and using polarizing language. But I would like to leave you with what I hope will be a deeper, broader piece of wisdom. It is rooted in ancient Eastern thought.

In the West, we may tend to analyze situations like Ben Zhang’s by considering the individual: What sort of person is Ben Zhang? Did he do the right thing or the wrong thing? Did he have a “Chinese” reaction to the comments he heard? What sort of people are his colleagues? Did they do the right thing or the wrong thing? Did they behave in an “American” way?

In the East, however, a person’s actions are viewed as inextricably linked to the greater context. Considered in this light, the story above isn’t about Ben Zhang, nor is it about his colleagues. This is a story about the reactions of different people to a shared context. Resolution, or transcendence, of the situation depends on everyone involved — Ben, his colleagues and his mentor — gaining a comprehension of the power of the context they all inhabit.

I believe that a better understanding of — and better solutions to — the increasingly complex and often cross-cultural problems we face today, at the individual, organizational and global level, will require this broader sort of thinking. What we see as actions, at any level, are often reactions to unacknowledged externalities. If we are able to perceive our connectedness to context and circumstance, we will be far better equipped to solve the many challenges, large and small, facing us and our world today.

The preceding is based on the case US-China Tensions in Class: International Politics Meets Interpersonal Relationships (Darden Business Publishing) by Darden Professor Ming-Jer Chen, Lydia Fairfax, JianYe (Jacky) Feng and Mary Summers Whittle.

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About the Expert

Ming-Jer Chen

Leslie E. Grayson Professor of Business Administration

Chen is a leading authority in strategic management, a field that helps companies align corporate policies and resources with strategic priorities. He is recognized for his pioneering work in competitive dynamics — how firms compete and collaborate worldwide — and ambicultural management — how to integrate the best aspects of seemingly oppositional business cultures and practices, such as Eastern and Western, or competitive and cooperative.

Chen’s corporate clients include Merck, FedEx, Rolls-Royce and Tencent. His work has been featured frequently in global media, including ForbesThe Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, and he contributes a regular column to Harvard Business Review (Chinese). Chen’s article “Becoming Ambicultural: A Personal Quest and Aspiration for Organizations,” based on his 2013 Academy of Management president’s speech, appeared in Academy of Management Review in 2014.

B.S., National Taipei University; MBA, Ph.D., University of Maryland