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For the past forty-six years, Americans and Chinese have experienced a myriad of culture bumps with one another from tipping to transportation to touching as we have negotiated, studied, and socialized with one another.

In order to understand the origins of our bumps, we can turn to the Staircase and Roller Coater Models of Cultural Reality.

These models were proposed by Pierre Casse in 1980 in which he visualized cultural differences as a staircase on one end of a continuum and a roller coaster on the other end.

In the Staircase model (which typifies many American values), the individual begins at the bottom and by hard work, moves up. The beliefs associated with this model are that individuals have control of their lives, individuals are responsible for their lives and that upward striving is desirable. The individual in this model would be competitive and ambitious. In contrast, in the roller-coaster model, outside forces control the individual, and the individual has minimal control over his or her life. There is an emphasis on enjoyment of the present moment, and it doesn’t matter how hard the individual works—there is only certainty of peaks and valleys in succession in the future. In a car on a roller coaster, each person has a seat that he or she occupies. If people try to move about, they “upset the car”. Thus, formality (or expected behavior) and We can apply these models to Chinese and American differences in negotiating styles, in contracts, in time concepts and in daily expected behaviors. The daily living culture bumps we experience with one another are the tip of these deeper values.


For Chinese, with a strong sense of relationship, negotiations are used to develop long-lasting and trusting relationships. While Americans are not adverse to relationships, their primary purpose in negotiating is to achieve a favorable “deal” – as quickly as possible. They also place a huge amount of faith in a contract – considering it to be “written in concrete. While Chinese tend to see “deals” as conditional – if change occurs in one area, then other areas (already decided upon) are fair game to be re-negotiated. These perceptions of what negotiations are basically about can cause huge culture bumps.


Another area that can contribute to culture bumps is the idea of what a contract is meant to do. For Americans, contracts are detailed long documents that spell out exactly what each party is meant to do. It includes provisions for worst case scenarios. For the Chinese, a contract is to establish a positive relationship between the parties – one that focuses on shared principles and will continue indefinitely. Thus it cannot be rigid in its interpretation as Americans’ legalistic approach.


Still another difference occurs in the area of how long it takes to negotiate. For Chinese, who need to confer with many people – both at their own level and above them – the process is lengthy. In addition, since from their perception the purpose to develop relationships, time is of less importance than to the Americans who usually have more authority to make decisions – face to face with the opposite side. Many business culture bumps can be understood by understanding these two models. Click on this puzzle for specific business culture bumps.

In the following style of communication, both models can be found.

Pierre Cass, Training for the Cross Cultural Mind, A Handbook for Cross Cultural Trainers and Consultants. Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, Washington, D. C., 1980, p. 48.

(December 9, 2014)

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