How to communicate in china 3 top tips by david thomas

Boost your communication skills in China with 3 simple steps


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Anyone who has had any experience of doing business in China will tell you that, despite common perceptions and assumptions, the greatest communication challenge is not usually caused by language differences. 

Direct V Indirect Communication

Whilst of course you are always going to have a big advantage if you can speak the local language, the biggest challenges and problems usually arise from the fact that, whilst western people prefer a style of communication which is more “direct” (as illustrated on the left hand side of the diagram above), Asians tend to be more “indirect” (as shown on the right hand side in red). To westerners, the “indirect approach” is inefficient, unproductive and time consuming, which costs time and money. They feel more comfortable if “you say what you mean and mean what you say” and get to the point quickly. Asians find this approach uncomfortable, confrontational and sometimes counter-productive. 

Understanding this important difference in culture and communication styles, our first tip to westerners doing business in China is to learn the art of asking ‘open questions’:

Tip # 1: Ask Open Questions 

One of the many cross-cultural issues here is that the Chinese language doesn’t really include options to use such direct words as “Yes” and “No”. A question in Chinese will often end with “can or cannot?” or “true or not true?” or “have or have not?” which allows the other party to use words other than “Yes” or “No” to answer it. And in an effort to please, and certainly not disappoint foreigners, Chinese people often prefer to say “Yes”, and figure out later how to make good on their promise, rather than to sound impolite by saying “No”. In fact, even I myself can be guilty of this!

So, when doing business in China, I usually recommend to our clients that they develop skills in asking “Open Questions”. These are usually questions that start with “Why?”, “How?”, “When?”, “What?”, or “Where?” which can’t easily be answered with a simple “Yes” (or “No”). Open Questions have the following characteristics:

  • They can’t be answered with a simple “Yes”.
  • They require the respondent to think and reflect.
  • They enable you to tease out the other person’s opinions and feelings.
  • They hand control of the conversation to the other side and give you a much better idea of what is likely to happen next.

For example:

  • How do you plan to complete this task?
  • When do you expect the goods to be ready?
  • What will you require from me to get the job done?

However, before moving to our second tip, perhaps we should reflect on some of the advantages of the “indirect approach”. You could argue that it allows time for different opportunities and ideas to be pursued. It allows you to change direction if your initial approach isn’t working. You don’t offend people by upsetting them with direct language (eg “you’re fired”) which can’t be taken back later. You create better long term relationships which are harmonious, supportive and respectful. 

The Chinese have done it this way for thousands of years so they can’t be all wrong. In fact, many western organisations grappling with some of the complexities of diversity and political correctness are finding that a more indirect approach is the only way to manage people in the modern era, particularly millennials who don’t respond well to an authoritarian style of management. Perhaps “Indirect” is better after all!

Tip # 2: Learn a few simple phrases in Chinese

When talking about communication with the Chinese, I imagine that the first thing you thought about is the language difference which of course is a major factor but, from my experience, many foreigners operate perfectly well in China without speaking fluent Mandarin. However, what you must do is to show your respect and interest in China by learning a few key Mandarin phrases, which won’t take you very long and will have an immediate impact. Here are some simple examples:

Hello: Nǐhǎo (Nee how)

Thank you: Xièxiè (Shieh-shieh)

Goodbye: Zàijiàn (Zhai-jian)

Another way of showing your interest and appreciation of Chinese culture and language is to choose a really good Chinese name. Everyone can do this. This helps start a conversation, breaks the ice and provides a perfect opportunity for you to explain (perhaps with the help of a translator) the story of how your name was chosen for you, what it means to you and why you like it. It’s not often that you get a chance to choose your own name so make sure you choose a good one (normally with two or three characters, surname first) that says something about you or has a good story attached to it, and then add it to your business card. 

So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and ask a Chinese friend or colleague to help you choose a good chinese name (which perhaps sounds like your English name, or has some special meaning related to your appearance, personality or character) and then practice using it. When you’re sure it’s the right one for you, add the Chinese characters to your business card and be ready to start talking about it.

Tip #3: Pay close attention to what’s going on

I’ve found from my own experience that you can sometimes learn more about what’s actually happening in the room from the way people are interacting with each other, as much as what’s being said. It’s a good reminder to spend less time talking and more time listening and observing, as people give so much away from their body language, facial expressions and hand movements. 

This is particularly important in a culture which prefers a more indirect style of communication than is common amongst westerners, as you receive lot of non-verbal cues during every interaction and most of these get missed if you’re only listening to what’s being said. I’ve often come out of a room with Chinese friends, partners and clients with a very different perception of what’s been said from those who have done all the talking!

From my experience, language is often the least of our problems when dealing between cultures as we find ourselves grappling to understand how the timing, wording or emphasis of a particular message can make a huge difference between either delighting, disappointing or even offending the recipient, or anything in between. Effective communication is an art, not a science, and there’s no doubt that we can, and must, all get better at it if we hope to succeed and prosper in the Asian Century!

If you want to learn more about doing business in China and follow the latest China News and trends, please subscribe to China Bites, my daily newsletter about what’s happening in China and why it matters.

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