Aside from competency in the Chinese language, one of the more difficult (and important) aspects of communications with the Chinese stems from their tendency to speak in a vague and roundabout manner. This can be a significant problem for Westerners, many of whom are accustomed to speaking in a direct manner with few, if any, hidden pretenses. This is an issue which cannot be lightly ignored by Westerners in China, especially those with the goal of founding or managing a business. On one hand, in China where tradition, respect, and social prestige all play an important role in business and society, it is not only necessary to clearly communicate your intent but to also do so in a way that your counterpart finds acceptable. On the other hand, if you are unable to comprehend what your employees, colleagues, and business partners’ true meanings and intents are, then you may find it very difficult to successfully manage a business in China. In this article, several factors will be introduced which play a part in influencing the ways in which the Chinese speak and communicate. In a future article, various methods will be introduced on how to effectively communicate with the Chinese in spite of the potential obstacles discussed below.
Maintaining a Harmonious Environment
As a rule, both in business and on social occasions most Chinese prefer to maintain a polite and harmonious environment to avoid offending both hosts and guests. At formal business meetings, this desire to preserve harmony will often prevent dissension among meeting attendees, especially with regard to more junior employees (e.g. age or rank ). Senior managers or executives lead these meetings with junior employees normally toeing the line laid down by their superiors. In addition to the concept of harmony, these practices also relate to the Chinese interpretation of proper leadership methods. Many Chinese leaders use a “do as I say” model of leadership and in contrast to many Western corporations, rely much less on colleagues and subordinates for ideas and support. Thus in many cases meetings are used by managers and leaders to to discuss agendas, hear reports and presentations, and issue instructions. When meeting with other companies, organizations, and government agencies, the Chinese prefer to set specific agendas and prefer not to deviate in order to avoid surprises and potential embarrassment. Maintaining harmony is usually more important when there are more people present, or when there are people present of many different ranks or statuses.
Hierarchy also factors into how the Chinese communicate. To the Chinese (as well as Asians in general), a person’s place in a given business or social hierarchy not only determines how others will and can speak to that person, but also the ways in which a person is allowed to speak to others. For example, workers in China must generally phrase their words carefully when speaking to superiors, especially to those which are more traditionally minded. Speaking out of turn to a superior in China can lead to both poor treatment (e.g. being discriminated against or humiliated ) as well as reprisals (e.g. being fired or passed over for a promotion). Leaders and managers in Chinese companies by contrast, are much freer to speak their minds to subordinates. And while the concept hierarchy may seem similar to and have similar implications as the idea of a “harmonious environment” as explained above, there is a subtle difference. Harmony comes into play when a group is gathered together, or members of a company are meeting with representatives of another company. Hierarchy in turn determines what can and can’t be said, and to whom. For example in many cases an employee simply cannot refuse the demand of a superior (tactfully in any case), or disagree with an idea no matter the actual truth of the matter. If an employee’s manager “suggests” the employee attend a weekend trade fair or seminar, there is in reality very little wiggle room. Another effect of hierarchy in China is that communication is usually smoother between individuals of the same level or rank. This is due to the fact that those of the same status have more in common and that there are no differences in rank to restrict communication. For example, when arranging a meeting between two companies of relatively equal size, if the president of one company is attending, it is likewise expected that the other company’s president will attend. To the Chinese point of view, the two presidents, as equals, will able to communicate much more easily and clearly.
Avoiding Refusals & Paying Compliments
The concept of Face also plays a strong role in how the Chinese communicate. The Chinese prefer to avoid the negative and emphasize the positive. When faced with a situation in which they have bad news, disagree with someone, or there is the need to refuse a request, the Chinese often will worry about causing a loss of Face. Most Chinese will go to great lengths to avoid this, especially when it pertains to someone the Chinese person in question cares about personally, professionally or someone who may have influence over their future. The Chinese avoid potential losses of Face simply because it is judged to be the way a civilized person behaves. Depending on the specific situation, there are different ways that this can influence a conversation or dialogue. First, the truth may be withheld completely, with the goal of either fixing the problem first, or waiting until a later date to reveal the news (why get in trouble today, when you can put it off until tomorrow). Second, the truth may be marginalized, by inferring that the situation is not as dire as it actually is. Third, with the intent to tell the truth, a Chinese person may often lead into an embarrassing topic with compliments, with intent of easing the blow to a person’s Face, or allowing the other person to perceive that everything possible was done to prevent a loss of face. The Chinese also do their utmost to give Face to people important to them in the form of giving compliments (and sometimes giving gifts). When dining together, Chinese businessmen routinely praise one another with compliments and toasts. Friends and family dining and interacting together also regularly use the occasion to pay respects and speak with one another in a friendly and lighthearted manner. Gifts are given on many social and business occasions in China and are accompanied by words of good will meant to give Face to others. And just as bad news and refusals are avoided in order to avoid the loss of face, the kind words that the bad news or refusal is couched in, is done so to give face.
Building & Maintaining Relationships
Building and maintaining relationships also influences how the Chinese communicate. Relationships are the web which hold Chinese society and social circles together, and in order to function properly it is essential that the Chinese maintain relationships within companies, the family, and between friends. Within a company, not only are employees bound by the rules of hierarchy, but they also must build relationships (especially in larger companies) to support their efforts to succeed on projects or receive promotions. For example, a manager in a Chinese company must simultaneously manage relationships with subordinates, fellow managers, and superiors. This necessary management of these types of intra-company relationships all require the use of differing language and communication styles in order to be effective. In companies with a focus on selling products or services, there is an even bigger focus on building and maintaining relationships with current and potential clients. Whenever they want to build a strong relationship, the Chinese need to demonstrate their desire for the relationship which in many cases will entail gifts, compliments, and favors, and the effort to demonstrate a common cause or concern. In some cases when a sales manager fails to go to enough effort to “build the relationship,” which could mean treating the client to enough meals and drinks, the client in question might feel insulted or decide on another vendor or company.
The Non-Specific Nature of the Chinese Language
Aside from the cultural aspects of communication in China, there are also linguistic elements which must be considered. In the experience of the author, many words and phrases are structured in Chinese, traditional and modern, are not as specific as their counterparts in Western languages (e.g. English). Many words in Chinese have multiple definitions, and the same character can mean separate things in different contexts, as well as be pronounced in different ways. It is common in speeches, announcements and communications in China for more generalized speech to be used. Westerners in China may observe language which appears uncertain, and incorrectly assume that the lack of detail is deliberate. However in China it is important to have a clear understanding of context, and allow for the tendency of language to be vague.
This concludes part one of “Tips for Communicating With The Chinese.” Stay tuned for part two where helpful tips are provided to assist Westerners, businessmen and travelers alike, in their communications with the Chinese.
Thanks for reading!
Have you have noticed or experienced any other unique ways in which the Chinese communicate? Do you have any questions on the ways in which the Chinese communicate, as discussed above? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
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