As an American who writes and consults on issues related to cultural intelligence, I'll readily admit we Americans continue to earn the title "Ugly American" fair and square. Mind you, most American business leaders I meet don't intentionally try to come off as the nagging label portrays.
But listen to the conversations for long and the "U.S. is best" assumptions bleed through. Whether it's the rolling of the eyes during the "clearly inadequate" security screenings done at various international airports or the vocalized dismay that Europeans still haven't learned to put ice in their Coke, the ugly reputation lives on.
But recently I've been in some fascinating conversations with some Asian colleagues and friends who feel like the Chinese are giving us a run for our money - not only in becoming the economic superpower of the world but also in taking on the arrogant swagger that seems to inevitably accompany the position of superpower.
Many were miffed that China sent junior officials to the Copenhagen climate talks last December, one of whom allegedly shook his finger at President Obama to make it clear that no one would be telling China what to do.
Then there's the Google debacle, the sabotaged nuclear disarmament talks in New York, and their ongoing chastening of Viet Nam, Myanmar, and India over territorial disputes.
China has reason for confidence. The economic meltdown barely slowed them down. Yet simultaneous with their growing assertiveness lingers a quick deference to still being an underdeveloped economy unable to accept responsibility for global warming, putting pressure on Sudan and Iran, and other efforts we've come to expect of our global superpowers.
The question many Asian neighbors are asking is whether China will use their growing prominence merely for self-interest or as a global broker on behalf of the rest of them?
The same question has been rightfully asked of the U.S. time and time again as we've gone about our alleged do-gooding in the world. China has a long way to go before they've outpaced us in arrogance and imperialism. But all indicators suggest their prominence on the global scene will continue to rise and all eyes are watching to see how they steward that role.
There's little point in predicting much less thinking we can control how to interface with China. But any serious business manager needs to do more than simply nod to the reality of China's growing prominence. Effective managers need to study China and learn the intricacies of trust building, negotiation, and collaboration with government officials and business leaders throughout China.
As Doug Flint, CFO of banking giant, HSBC says: "If you were to go into any business forum in Europe and America and ask which country is going to be most important in the global environment in the next 25 years, I suspect that a vast majority would say China, and the second-highest number might say India. If you then ask how much do people in Europe and America understand about the history and culture of those countries, the answer would be a negligible amount."
Whatever you make of the Chinese response to their success, they're an essential part of the future for all of us. Take the time to understand China. Your business depends on it.