Production expert Jürgen Gossmann, Gerresheimer, (pictured) is convinced that Europeans can learn a great many things from the Chinese.
One of these is a core concept of Confucianism called ‘gei mianzi’, which is all about respecting other people’s ‘face’, i.e. their prestige and reputation.
Gossmann is a big fan of Asia and has visited many different countries in the region. He was assigned to China by Gerresheimer, where he managed the company’s cosmetic glass production plant for two years.
Before gaining a production engineering degree, Gossmann did a tool making apprenticeship. This combined knowledge makes him an all-round specialist in moulded glass production and an experienced manager for the production line staff.
He gained a great deal of valuable experience, both professionally and privately, in a world that still puzzles and astounds many Europeans.
In the following interview, Jürgen Gossmann talks about living and working in China:
Why did Gerresheimer send you to China?
There were some organisational changes at our moulded glass plant in China, and they needed a General Manager to run it and restructure it. I was chosen because I’d worked very successfully with our Chinese plant in the past, and my colleagues in China already knew me because I’d already visited it several times.
What was your impression of China before your assignment, and how did it change as a result of the time you spent there?
Like many other people, I thought that China was a developing nation. But that only applies to the rural regions today. Major cities such as Peking and Shanghai are ultra-modern places with state-of-the-art technology and modern infrastructures. The changes in China and the speed at which they are taking place is impressive.
I’ve been travelling to Asia for more than 25 years. China was the only country I’d avoided until that point because its entry formalities - the visa requirement, for instance - are pretty complex. So I was very pleased to have the opportunity to visit China in 2006 when I went on a business trip to Peking. At that time everyone was busy getting ready for the Peking Olympic Games in 2008 and Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
What aspect of China impressed you most?
China’s more than 4000 year-old history is even older than our own ancient history. While I was there, I realised how little we are taught about China and Asia at school. Around 40 kilometres outside Peking is the Choukoutien cave system where the 400,000 to 600,000 year-old bones of the ‘Peking Man’ were found. ‘Our’ Neanderthal man is only 300,000 years old at most. The internationally most famous tourist attraction in the Peking region is the Chinese Wall. Climbing up to the top of the wall is a pretty exhausting experience, but once you arrive there, all hot and sweaty, you get an awesome view. And you can’t help being impressed about how they managed to build this 8,850 kilometer-long wall with the means available to them at the time. It’s incredible!
As a person with a European background, I was amazed to see how so many people can live a relatively structured life despite the city being so crowded. Over 23 million people live in Peking. That’s approximately the population of the entire Australian continent, and we only have around 5.3 million people living in the Ruhr region. It’s hard to describe what that means for the infrastructure in Peking. You have to see it for yourself. Unfortunately, this population density is associated with a lot of other problems, such as air pollution and water shortages.
How do the Chinese work in comparison to your German colleagues?
The Chinese are very hard working and they have a great thirst for knowledge. But their approach to work is somewhat different to our own. The work structure is hierarchy-based, reflecting Chinese society and culture. And the Communist Party of China has a very strong influence on the world of work. It ensures a certain number of social components and improvements, and it monitors compliance with them. It plays a similar role to that of our trade unions.
What did you least expect from China?
People say that the Chinese language isn’t difficult because it’s spoken by 1.4 billion people. You don’t get far in China speaking English, except in the main tourism hotspots, which is something I wasn’t expecting. Some of the city road signs have English translations on them, but once you get outside the city everything is in Chinese. This meant that I was often dependent on the assistance of Chinese speakers. Otherwise I’d never have coped with all the official paperwork or with places off the well-trodden paths. But I also took the opportunity to try and learn the language and to approach people, all of whom were very helpful.
What things that you learned in China have you incorporated into your new role?
One important thing I learned is the concept of ‘gei mianzi‘ 给面子. It is all about respecting other people’s ‘face‘ or reputation and taking care not to put them in an uncomfortable situation as a result of something you say or do. It is one of the most important rules of conduct of all in China, and the Chinese learn about it and live according to it from childhood on. It’s strange and disconcerting for us Europeans to see a Chinese person smiling when you’re angry or too forthright. The custom of making and saving face doesn’t help you to get your work done more efficiently or resolve conflicts faster, but ultimately it’s easier and less frustrating.
Of course I’m not a new or purer person and you don’t become Chinese within the space of two years. But dealing successfully with a foreign culture is definitely a very valuable experience. I think that I approached all the changes and issues that awaited me when I returned to Germany much more calmly and confidently, and that I will approach those ahead of me with the same calmness and confidence. Now projects relating to China won't be the 'big unknown' for me, they'll be more of a 'home match'.