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“American Factory 美国工厂” – Better Than Any Optional Cross-Cultural Lecture

“American Factory 美国工厂“ is an American documentary film about a Chinese company in Moraine, a city near Dayton, Ohio. Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang bought a shut-down General Motors factory and turned it into an American branch of his Fuyao automobile glass conglomerate. He created a kind of microcosm of globalization, with workers from the United States and China working together. Distributed by Netflix, the film was acquired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, and it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2020.

As a cross-cultural consultant, I can assure you that this is the best show in town. Nothing could be more accurate than the real-life cross-cultural challenges playing out on the screen, as directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert implement their fly-on-the-wall filmmaking approach, with no external interviews or manipulative point-of-view editing. They film what happens over the course of a few years, from all points of view.

China has the world’s oldest culture and is the most highly populated country. The Chinese also have a huge sense of cultural superiority. So, it comes as no real surprise when Cao Dewang, the chairman of FGA – Fuyao Glass America, the Chinese company’s branch in Ohio, tells the Chinese employees there, “The most important thing is not how much money we earn, but how this will change Americans’ views of the Chinese and towards China.” The Chinese value patience, loyalty, tradition, patriotism, harmony, respect for hierarchy and a sense of duty. Accordingly, in response to some challenges later in the film, the chairman says, again in Chinese to his countrymen, “Every Chinese person should do things for our country and our people. It’s down to every one of you here.”

Westerners, specifically Americans, may underestimate China’s power and its impact on the rest of the world, perhaps due to their own national egocentric worldview and their actual power. The United States of America has the world’s largest economy with an estimated GDP of $20.94 trillion (Top 10 largest economies in the world). It tops all other nations in trade and industry. Americans are always pressing forward; they are media driven, dollar minded, task oriented, attentive to the clock and protective of their own individual free time.

In the film, the Chinese employees receive a lecture about American culture, including the following insights:

America is a place to let your personality run free.
As long as you’re not doing anything illegal,
you’re free to follow your heart.
You can even joke about the president.
Nobody will do anything to you.

Americans’ cars are big and huge, very comfortable.
This represents the American sense of casualness.
They don’t place a heavy importance on outfits and attire.
If you travel in Europe in the summertime,
and you see someone walking in front of you,
if he’s wearing shorts, vests, and sports shoes,
they must be an American.

Americans say what they are thinking directly.
They don’t hide anything.
They are very obvious.
Everything is practical and realistic.
They dislike abstractions and theory in their daily lives.

All of this is very interesting, since it is a matter of perspective. As an Israeli and someone who researches Israeli culture for a living, naturally I experience Americans quite differently. Compared to my own culture, Americans do not really speak their mind directly and often mask their true feelings by using hints only truly understood by others versed in the same cultural code, but not by outsiders. However, everything is relative and of course in comparison with the traditionally restrained, hierarchical Chinese culture, Americans are perceived as more direct and practical. Therefore, whether explicitly or implicitly, everything depends on “where you’re coming from.”

Fuyao Glass Chairman Cao Dewang (Netflix via AP)

One of the main parameters demonstrating the cultural gap is, indeed, the matter of hierarchy. It is known as “power distance” in professional terminology. When company chairman Cao Dewang, who is a marvelous example of an “old-school leader,” comes to see the factory in the U.S., he instructs the regional manager to move the entrance door to another location. When the American manager explains to the interpreter that it will cost $35,000 to move the door, she looks at him with a “So what?” expression and does not even translate the comment for the chairman! His will is law, and his word is final. No need to bother with other opinions or objections.

American Factory directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, filming at the Fuyao factory in Dayton. Photo David Holm Netflix

As I mentioned, “American Factory” is distributed by Netflix. But it isn’t screened in China since Netflix isn’t available there. However, thousands of Chinese internet users who have seen the film on streaming sites have analyzed the differences between the American workers and their Chinese colleagues. BNN Bloomberg quoted 33-year-old Zhang Ming, who streamed the movie on a Chinese website where it was viewed more than 700,000 times: “The feeling is very complicated. I still appreciate how diligent and organized our Chinese workers are, but on the other hand, I also feel empathy for the American workers who are asking for more rights and protection.”

“American Factory” allows us to experience globalization on the small screen. The types of cultural clashes and mutual misunderstandings that take place among all levels of diverse team members all over the world, due to different norms and expectations, are made clear and accessible in this excellent film. It is a special opportunity that can help us better understand the importance of cross-cultural communication and how individuals and organizations need to approach global teamwork with empathy, mutual understanding, and the drive to learn from others. When we communicate at a deeper level, we can also get better acquainted with the people we are working with, which helps us find common ground for building friendship and trust, leading to much more effective business results as well.

I’ll close with a recommendation for you to see the film, and I would love to hear your opinion after you’ve finished watching it. What did you learn about yourself and about others? Enjoy!:)





OLM Consulting Founder

Osnat Lautman is a well-known intercultural expert and the author of the Amazon bestselling book ‘Israeli Business Culture’. Osnat is passionate about cultures, connecting humans and breaking through culture barriers. She created the ISRAELI™ model of Israeli business characteristics (Informal, Straightforward, Risk-Taking, Ambitious, Entrepreneurial, Loud, Improvisational) to reveal the foundations of the Israeli innovative culture. Osnat supports many organizations and individuals to effectively connect and engage with Israelis, avoid misunderstanding and maximize the value of combining the innovative Israeli spirit into a multi culture environment.

Osnat is the founder of OLM Consulting and her customer include the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel, The Jewish Agency, Verint, NYU Tel Aviv, the British Embassy, the Swedish Embassy, the Belgium Embassy, FIDF, Israel Defense Ministry delegation in New York, JCC Association, National Bank of Australia, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 888 Holdings, Corning, SkyVision, ObserveIT, MX1, Israel Export Institute, StartApp, Tel Aviv Municipality, and many others.

Osnat lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, from 2009 to 2013. During this time, she started her extensive research on the differences between Israeli and non-Israeli business cultures, including video interviews with businesspeople from numerous origins. The recorded discussions are incorporated into her lectures and workshops for demonstration purposes.

Osnat holds:
M.A in Social Science and Communications, Bar Ilan University, Israel
Certificate in Organizational Development, New York University, New York
Coach License from Co-Active Training Institute, Israel

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