Cross-Cultural Competence

An Analysis of the term Competence in China and Germany

Are you competent in the eyes of your business partners (at first glance)? Experts of global acting companies face intercultural challenges. What does a German expert have to expect and what competences should this expert have in order to be successful in China? To answer this question surveys in Germany and China have been conducted in order to understand the term Competence and the meaning behind the word within these cultures. There are a variety of impressions allocated in a ‘semantic network’ which reflects a certain national culture and its understanding of the term Competence. This context dependency is explaining why the definition of the term and its meaning might differ throughout cultures. Furthermore, Competence has been discussed in literature for decades. Scientists from different fields reflected Competence within their professional context, which is why there is no common definition for this term.

Western culture overshadows Confucian ideals

In Chinese literature the term Competence can be traced back to Confucius who related competence to the perfect and authentic state of moral behavior and spirit. Today’s focus on Competence is neglecting the Chinese cultural heritage and covers it with a blanket of a more modern and US-American perspective. When viewing the Competence survey results it becomes obvious that beneath that blanket the cultural understanding of Competence is living through these developments.

Redefining Chinese understanding of Competence

Osgood’s Semantic Differential enabled us to show how Chinese and German participants use their language to describe and give meaning to the term Competence. The explorative factor analysis revealed 8 factors for both the Chinese and German full sample. 

Germany   China
Ego-Strength   Nature of Individual (个性)
Maturity (Ability)   Honesty (诚信)
Power   Efficiency (实现能力)
Charisma   Strength of Enforcement (执行力)
Work Attitude (Virtues)   Communication Strength (交际能力)
Authenticity (Values)   Politeness (礼貌)
Team Spirit   Spirit of Enterprise (进取心)
Leadership Strength   Enthusiasm (激情)
defining factors of competence by country


The two factor sets display the two cultures very effectively. Germans are commonly known to put strong emphasis on ideals such as Maturity (e.g. knowledge, experience), Work Attitude (e.g. punctuality, organization) and Authenticity (e.g. trustworthiness, directness). Chinese are known for their Politeness (e.g. face value), Efficiency (e.g. conscientiousness, ability to adapt) and their expectations regarding Communication (cooperativeness, diplomacy).

Do you have the special touch?

Participants have chosen from a set of four people character types the one they believe is the most competent. The character sets were designed in Germany with regard to the German cultural context. The development of the characters was the result of an avatar study that was conducted earlier. It is based on substantial findings. The aim was to analyze how different avatars are perceived in order to design unique characters for an online service platform whose customers should be accompanied and supported by the avatar of their choice when using the online platform. Because the avatars allocate certain competences it stood to reason to ask participants of the Competence survey how they perceive these avatars. The findings are strong as the avatars and their character sets are still relevant with regard to the found German factor set.

Which of these avatars appears most competent?
Which of these avatars appears most competent?


The results show that the association of a competent person is understood differently in both cultures. The perfect team in Germany is not the perfect choice in China!

The majority of German participants (37,3%) have chosen the young woman. People that believe strength of reinforcement (Leadership Strength) and personal judgment (Authenticity) are crucial when it comes to competence decide for this character type.

The majority of Chinese participants (36,5%) associate the highest competence with the young man. For Chinese, this character type incorporates a very strong self-confidence, communication strength and spontaneity. These characteristics are strongly represented in the Chinese (Spirit of Enterprise, Enthusiasm) but not in the German factor set.

Chinese (23,5%) and German (33,6%) participants have chosen the elderly man as the second most competent character type. He allocates wisdom, maturity and extraversion (Ego-Strength).

Don’t be frustrated if you are not an elderly, well-nurtured man or a young woman. In the end your actual performance is determining whether you are noticed as a competent person and not the first glance.

Note: This research was conducted by the Carl Benz Academy. Currently the CBA is building up its own research function.

Survey Facts
Conducting Institute: Carl Benz Academy - China
Survey Title: Analysis of the term Competence in China and Germany
Aim of Survey: Capturing the affective and connotative meaning of the term Competence
Survey Channel: Online questionnaire
Incentive for Participants: Individual Competence Report
Methodology: Osgood’s Semantic Differential and Explorative Factor Analysis
Sample: Full sample
Survey Period: Survey was finished by January 2014
Survey Supervisor: Janina Schönebeck (E.R.P. GmbH,
Participants: 389 returns of 1233 survey invitations (return rate: 31,5%)
Survey Supervisor: Yang Yuxin (Carl Benz Academy,
Participants: 258 returns of 760 survey invitations (return rate: 37,5%)
research project facts


If you want to learn more about the results of this study or if you want to take part in the survey, please contact Manfred Schönebeck at!


In August 2014 the German Chamber of Commerce (China) published the results of this research project: (pages 42-43).