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Some cultures don’t use the word “crisis” as a negative

While many Americans panic at the word “crisis,” the Chinese have come to view it as a positive word

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.

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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.

Key takeaways

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.

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Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Texasdmh

    July 23, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Monica –
    I enjoyed the article.  Particularly important – from my perspective – is your 3rd takeaway:  “Timing is everything. Use time wisely to respond rather than react.”
    It is surprising how few companies adequately prepare for crises.  Even a little preparation will go a long way in being able to respond rather than react.

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