Crises at every turn
It seems we can’t listen to or read the news without some mention of a “crisis.” Whether economic, global warming related, financial, or educational, there’s always some big boogie monster for us to fear. I stopped for a moment this week to talk to a counterpart in China about the state of the world. As he spoke, he used the Chinese word that translates to crisis, “wéij,” but spoke hopefully about the future.
As I spoke, I caught myself using words peppered with anxiety, fear and confusion whenever I mentioned a crisis. Then it hit me! The fundamental difference in how we view and ultimately use this word has much to do with the definition of the word itself and the cultural context behind it.
How Americans view a crisis
What makes our pulse raise and our chests tighten when we hear crisis, especially in the work place? From my experience, a crisis is a fire to be put out, an emergency to be settled or an “all-hands-on-deck” desperate attempt to fix an error.
In modern America, it seems this word “crisis” has been stripped of its benign meaning (turning point, a crossroads) and only carries a negative connotation of doom and gloom; implying that an impulsive decision be made. But this is completely the opposite of what a crisis is in China.
How Chinese view a crisis
When I first started learning Chinese one of my favorite words was crisis or wéij?. This two-character transliteration combines two different words in order to paint a picture of what a crisis truly is. Danger (wéixi?n) and opportunity (j?huì) meld to form an idiomatic expression of what a crisis should be – a place where danger begets opportunity. N
ow, many years since my first Chinese class, I have an even greater appreciation for the word from a business stand point. Culturally, the Chinese balk at the idea and display of impetuousness.
Children are taught to take their time with tasks and employees are urged to be “thoughtful and deliberate” as to not cause errors. When it comes to business, the same mantra holds true. No surprise, then, that crises be seen as a chance for positive change.
Understanding how different cultures conceive of and react to crises can help professionals in industry to overcome their own challenges. The key takeaways from this lesson are:
- In a negotiation, see a “crisis” as an opportunity to form a mutually beneficial outcome
- Consistency is of utmost importance
- Timing is everything. Use time wisely to respond rather than react.