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INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS GOLF

Ashley Charles JennerImage

Golf is the number one sport for business executives. Ashley Jenner argues that a four hour game creates the random microcosmic conditions which bring the players´ true qualities to the surface. From São Paulo.

Imagine the great Eye in the Sky assessing the behavior of Chinese and Indian businessmen playing golf under competitive conditions – a type of group dynamics environment. A four hour game of golf creates the random microcosmic conditions which bring the players´ true qualities to the surface. These conditions include such social, creative, judgmental, leadership and sporting skills as well as character tests. For Westerners, golf is an everyday fact of life. Indians have familiarity with the sport but the phrase Chinese Golfer is almost an oxymoron. How might non-westernized Chinese and Indians react to golf?

Groupings

Social factors come into the forefront when choosing the foursome. It can be expected that the Chinese may wish to play with other Chinese but that the more cosmopolitan Indian may feel confident about mixing with other nationalities. Both may end opting for family members as golf partners, just like in business. In fact, where there are a sufficient number of them, Asians in general even tend to take over entire golf clubs and adapt them to their culture and language, reminiscent of the English colonial compounds reserved for westerners in the 19th century. If this concept is extended to the corporate Board Room we can only expect a token westerner or two and a highly centralized decision making process in Chinese and Indian companies where seniority is known to be primordial. As far as business counterparties are concerned it can be expected that the low lying fruit will be offered to companies of the same nationality and only the less attractive deals may be available to outsiders. However, this has been known to happen in many European countries. 

Playing style

During the game, risk-takers are clearly discernable from defensive players who are protecting their scorecard. Risk-takers aim for the flag with long shots across lakes but defenders place their ball just before the lake (lie-up strategy) so their next shot is safer. The Chinese may be categorized as avid risk-takers in contrast to the more prudent Indians. The modern Chinese business style reveals an irresistible force confident in its ability to conquer any market it chooses whereas the Indians display much more reserve. and target only certain industries. The exception may be the steam-roller approach of some of the Indian steel barons.

The Chinese business style reveals an irresistible force confident in its ability to conquer any market whereas the Indians display more reserve.

Club staff

Club members unquestionably follow the directives of club staff, no matter how rich and famous they may be. This is because staff tend to stay on for many years and become part of the family and also because failure to heed their words can result in membership suspension. This egalitarian treatment includes caddies. Players talk to the caddy about “our ball”. (Vital inclusion for good golf). It is difficult to see either the Chinese or the Indian (with their jāti system) feeling at ease with this treatment. In fact, the class structure could make it difficult for either one of them to see the caddy as being little more than a rickshaw cabby. Time will be needed for such social structures to fall away. In the USA of the1920´s, professional golf players such as the great Walter Hagen were not allowed to use the same changing rooms as the amateur “Gentlemen” golfers. In the same way that economic development did away with the western class structure, so it will with social stratification in Asia.

Talking shop on the course

Golf rounds are wonderful opportunities for doing business as they last about four hours and many senior executives play. However, direct selling to a CEO during a game can be disastrous. The best route is to get his phone number and call him during the week. The question is whether the Chinese and the Indian can resist the instantaneous hard-sell route by following the slow road. The latter is more the Chinese and the Indian oriental style where relationships are developed more carefully and this can produce a good golf-based business relationship dividend. However, socializing at the “19th hole” (the bar) with partners after the game is almost mandatory. It is usually difficult for reserved people to completely relax and participate actively in group idle shooting the breeze which can jump from one subject to another without warning and probably involves unfunny and even risqué jokes. The reserved Asian approach is at a definite disadvantage here although the Indians are known to be good, albeit rather verbose, raconteurs once they get into the groove.

The Rules of Golf

In golf, every shot must be counted. Normally a member of the group keeps score and the answer to the question “how many strokes?” is a test of character. Hard-liners own up to the true score and social players want to lop off a stroke or two. The scorer is also tested by an overtly false score, since he will have to sign the scorecard later. It is difficult to judge how either the Chinese or the Indian would act if no-one was looking when his ball was under a tree-root. Their behavior here has relevance to their business practices. Their version of truth is one of the greatest dividing factors between Asians and hard-nosed Westerners. Discretion is often seen as evasiveness. Chinese and Indian observance of contracts and copyright laws leaves room for improvement although Indians claim that their products are purely Indian intellectual property whereas the Chinese might find it difficult to make any such claim. The pressures of economic expansion appear to have warped some of the key traditional cultural values of these two great ancient civilizations as much as it has done in western countries. 

Betting

Betting is common in golf, ranging from $1 a hole to $100 for a single put. Betting means that everyone counts all the shots. Handicaps (the stroke advantage a good player gives to a less skilled player) are paramount because if they are too high, the less skilled players will have an unfair advantage. Some players systematically keep high handicaps in order to win bets and even tournaments. Golf is all about trust but cheaters soon get caught and become golfing pariahs. The Chinese like to bet and would probably embrace golf betting foursomes but the Indian may shy away from the practice. Both groups may have some problems in grasping that winning money is secondary to playing the sport. This may be translated into a business concept of governance and sustainability which sets external constraints on money-making activities. Western companies are forced to follow constraints by activist groups but the BRIC´s in general do not suffer the same pressures.

The Chinese like to bet and would probably embrace golf betting foursomes but the Indian may shy away from the practice.

Slow play

Asian golfers are renowned in the West for their slow play. This reflects their perfectionism especially on the putting greens. Betting also slows down the game because no-one will rush a shot with money hanging on it. The rules and etiquette of golf require slower players to give way to faster players coming from behind. A Course Marshall with powers to instruct slower players to give way often intervenes. Some members refuse requests both from faster players and even from the Marshall. Spontaneous willingness to give way is one of the greatest character tests in the game because it involves a sacrifice on an already crowded course when few may do so. From personal experience it can be said that few Asian players are able to accept the idea that they a) play very slowly and b) should give way to the faster group from behind. If this is translated into business terms, expect no flexibility and make sure the strong contract is far reaching, providing the other party is even willing to sign a contract. Whereas the Indians are somewhat more open in signing contracts with western companies, the Chinese are known to be inscrutably difficult; even large companies from other BRIC´s are disillusioned with the way the Chinese expect to get quick deals for their overseas activities but stonewall relentlessly when it involves signing contracts for activities in China. Hardly a level playing field.

It is no coincidence that golf is the number one sport for business executives. It may be said that the mere fact that a person plays golf is already a virtue and subconsciously the player tends to incorporate the core values of golf into everyday personal and business life. The post-war Japanese experience is an example of this. Golf is all about facing uncertain adversity under the scrutiny of third parties within a framework of extensive rigid rules and etiquette without bending them in spirit or letter. Businessmen the world over eagerly look forward to seeing the enlarged ranks of Chinese and Indian golfers. 

 

 
 
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