Next week, I’ll deliver a talk and workshop in Beijing, and it will be my first time there. A month later, I’ll go to Shanghai for a different company, and be part of a public Working Out Loud event on June 23rd. A woman who grew up in China commented about it on LinkedIn.
“I am curious how the WOL culture goes with Chinese culture. I was told to be “modest” when I was a kid - don’t show it even if you are good... And we have sayings like “the bird which doesn’t hide itself gets shot”.
That saying stuck in my memory. There are other translations, and there are similar expressions in other countries. Sometimes it’s "the shot hits the bird that pokes its head out” (枪打出头鸟) or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (出る釘は打たれる). Common interpretations are that conformity is valued over individuality, and that being open is somehow inappropriate or risky. ”Standing out invites criticism."
My first reaction to her comment was that it's your intention that matters. Indeed, it makes all the difference.
“Expressions like those are why WOL emphasizes the need to lead with generosity, to frame your work as a contribution that might help others.”
The “WOL culture” isn’t about trying to stand out or show how remarkable you are, but about being helpful, about leading with generosity as a way to build authentic relationships. If it feels fake or isn’t offered as a contribution, it isn’t WOL. A post on Twitter yesterday highlighted this different:
“I expected #WOL to be all self promotion: look at me, how to get attention for what you are working on. [Instead] the focus was on was being empathetic, encouraging and helping others. Complete polar opposite.”
In China, WOL may not be as foreign as one might think. For example, they already embrace the concept of guanxi (关系), "a central idea in Chinese society” that's related to “personalized social networks of influence…[in which] there is an emphasis on implicit mutual obligations, reciprocity, and trust.” Working Out Loud can be a way to extend this idea, making the networks even more open, and the relationships based more on empathy and giving freely than on obligation. As another Chinese expression says, "If you always give, you will always have.” (如果你总是给你永远拥有)
Are there differences between cultures? Yes. Is China different than Europe or the US? Yes. But “culture” comprises a wide range of human behaviors across huge numbers of people, and 1.3 billion people don’t fit comfortably into a single box. We have much more in common than the labels and expressions might lead us to believe, including our capacity for generosity and our need to build meaningful connections.
I’m looking forward to my visit.