Are You Disrespecting Yourself As CEO?

I had an interview with the CEO of a company in Burbank that does the official fan art for many US movie companies. This company has been trying to expand their reach in China and China's 1.5 billion movie-loving people. However, the company has been hitting roadblock after roadblock. They wanted to bring someone on board who could spearhead projects and work with their Chinese artists.

The interview was honestly not good. Four people in the company (all white of course, including the CEO) interviewed me together. There were many moments where we weren't on the same page, and most of it was my fault (and this isn't my Chinese humbleness speaking for me). However, one important detail I learned during the interview was that many Chinese artists weren't showing the American side the respect that normal American businesses expected in America.

When the interview ended and we bid farewell, the CEO handed me her card with both her hands and made a little bowing motion as a sign of respect. I was so taken aback by that gesture because as a CEO, she should not lower herself like that. My mind automatically switched to Chinese and I said, "不敢当!" That's what I automatically did in China for all those years I was living there as a kid.

The American CEO, of course, didn't understand what I was saying. She spoke minimal Chinese. I immediately tried to explain what was going on in English, but I could tell it was going over all four of their heads. This incident bothered me so much, so I visited my friend Dartanian Bagby, a world champion Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter and instructor and one of the first 12 American black belts in BJJ history. He, in his amazing wisdom explained a Chinese concept to me better than I could have ever done to the CEO. Hearing his explanation, I wish I had Professor Dartanian with me during the interview. I would have done so much better :) So with the help of Dartanian, and after a few conversations with my close friends, I think I finally have this thought out enough to write about it clearly and succinctly. So here I go.

In Chinese culture, only people of "lower" status use two hands to hand something like a card to a person of "higher" status. As a Chinese person, I would have expected her, the CEO of a company, to hand me her card with one hand (and I take it with both hands). When someone of "higher" status hands someone of "lower" status her card with both hands, it makes the situation very uncomfortable because of two reasons. One, the person who hands her card with two hands indicates with that gesture that maybe she isn't as worthy or respectable as she should be. Because if she did, she would automatically use one hand without hesitation or thought. Two, the person of "lower status" who accepts the gesture shows disrespect because he or she is allowing the 长辈 (parent) to lower her status.

That's why I immediately reacted by saying, "不敢当," because I couldn't lower her status like that. Even by accepting the card with both my hands, I don't acknowledge that she's the CEO and I'm just someone who is interviewing. Chinese society is all about 辈份(generational respect) and image (面子). You violate one or both, and you automatically appear disrespectful or foreign. It's often annoying, but a necessary evil to do business/survive China.

After the interview and after talking about it with Professor Dartanian, I typed up something very similar to this article and sent it to the CEO. I suspected that one of the reasons why the company was having trouble with Chinese artists' egos was because in the artists' view, the Americans were allowing the Chinese to walk over them. The CEO, whether she was busy or just didn't understand that I was trying to help her understand the confusing customs of Chinese culture, didn't reply to my email and never spoke to me again after the interview.

I hope this explanation helps all my readers (and any future Western company doing business in China) better understand something so important in Chinese society: respect your elders! And if you're an elder, respect yourself. This might be harder to accept as an American because we have an obsession with looking and being young. Nevertheless, if you're the CEO of a company, save the "wanting to be young" for your American colleagues. When you're interacting with the Chinese, take your real age and add five. That's how you should be acting.

I hope this helps! I will write a lot more on Chinese vs American culture in the future! I want to thank my friends Jeff Gu and Dartanian Bagby for helping me break down this cultural difference between America and China. Next time: Chinese vs American conceptions of history.