2.11. – 15.11.2015: About squares and circles

One thing I need to get out of the way first. I know I’m a foreigner and I don’t get the culture in a way which enables me to put down a verdict of any sort – nevertheless I want to write down my observations on some things I noticed.

I did some market research in Shanghai with Jin Wanxia or Nicole last weekend and while we were waiting for the train to the city centre I asked what the main difference between Germans and Chinese is. The answer she gave me was extremely enlightening in hindsight. She said: “German people think like a square and Chinese people think like a circle.” – This is apparently a saying in China.

I didn’t understand it at first, but after the weekend and some thought I think this is brilliant because the answer, embedded in the wording, contains so much more meaning than is apparent at first.

As I told her, that I didn’t get what she meant, she explained it roughly like: Germans have a strict structure in the way we do things and Chinese people simply don’t. She wanted to give an example and we opened our backpacks. Mine was pretty tidy inside, because I always carry my equipment in a way which enables me to find the things I need quickly. Hers wasn’t. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, because I can be very messy sometimes but one thing which I always keep neat and in order is the space where I work, just because I can’t stand it to search for something when I want to put down ideas real quick. I wasn’t convinced at first but having experienced some meetings and discussions about projects, I think I get the meaning.

For me it’s important to have a structure because in my experience and for my working style that’s the way I get things done quickly. The Chinese whom I worked with, did not have an order in which they discussed the topics – which sometimes seemed to me a little chaotic and a bit more time consuming than my approach. BUT I only think that way because I want to be as effective as possible. And because you can’t have two realities (one in which we used the good old german way to structure a meeting and one where we just did it in the new exciting Chinese style) I can’t compare any results unfortunately.

In the world today effectiveness could be seen as an advantage. From an economical perspective it certainly is. But this economical perspective is only as important as it is, because of the huge influence the western systems of thought had on the development of political and economic systems worldwide. One question I have to ask myself in this context is whether the systems evolved that way because they are “natural” developments or because they just work well with our fundamental beliefs and cultural values. The system which is used most widely just doesn’t have to be the best, it just has to be the most aggressive.

For me one other very interesting thing about the Chinese way to think and work is also another reason why I wouldn’t say that this effectiveness or structure has to be learnt or something like that. Structure can be rigid and limiting. The answers the Chinese we asked gave to our questions were very interesting for me. They often described a feeling with a situation or a picture. Or a thought in an abstract way like the comparison between the circle and the square. If I compare that to the german language and how I would give an answer it’s very different. I would search for one adjective to describe something as precisely as possible – effective. But I think this effectiveness when you compare it to the Chinese descriptions is less creative, less open.

Further – and now it gets a bit forced ;) – if you see the circle as a representation of unity it could also work as a metaphor for something else I noticed in China. Here the focus in everyday live seems to be outside oneself. When eating together, it’s very important to be polite and ensure the people around you have always enough to drink or eat. As I learnt in the brand strategy workshop the image you have from yourself is greatly dependent on how others see you, in China even more than in the west. The whole approach to family and social life is very different here and so on.

For me that topic is a little complicated. Because I think it’s very important to look at the people you surround yourself with and your environment, and to reflect on your impact on your surroundings. On the other hand there are some of the problems that come with defining your self-worth over extraneous factors or being so closely tied to your family, that you can’t live your own life.

This one month in Shanghai has already given me many things to think about with probably many more to come. I think I want to smooth the edges of my square a bit. But now I’m eager to explore my surroundings a bit more. Let’s see what happens next ;)