In an earlier post, I offered a general overview of several common elements in Chinese society (and the business environment) which will often influence how the Chinese communicate. These include concepts such as social harmony, giving or losing Face, maintaining relationships, and observing business and social hierarchies. However, knowing about these elements within Chinese culture is only half the battle. Understanding how to effectively communicate with the Chinese in spite of these potential difficulties and obstacles is also very important. In the following article, specific tips and advice are offered to the Western business person through extensive on-the-ground experience garnered by the author in Mainland China.
“Face-to-Face” Is Better in China
Despite the advances in telecommunications which allows calls and video chats from half the world away, the Chinese continue to prefer face-to-face conversations. This is very important in social circles and when conducting business, at which time Chinese relationship networks can hold a significant amount of influence. Holding a meeting or having a conversation face-to-face allows for more familiar conversation. Chinese business people when meeting in person enjoy a more amiable atmosphere which allow for the gift giving and compliments that facilitate the building and maintenance of personal relationships. For a Western business person, avoiding face-to-face meetings in the interest of saving time can result in some negative outcomes At best a Chinese worker or business person will be unable to develop a closer working relationship with a Westerner and as a result remain more at a distance from their needs and concerns. At worst, a Chinese person may feel insulted or annoyed which can damage the potential for future cooperation.
There is also another very real reason why Westerners would be advised to meet with Chinese business people face-to-face as often as they can. Many time when meeting in a Chinese business environment, meetings will take place in Mandarin Chinese or a local dialect, which most Westerners do not understand. When working with a translator, despite not understanding any Chinese, there are many signals that can be picked up through gestures and facial expressions with enough practice. But when holding a meeting through teleconferencing, the ability of the Western business person to spot these signals is lost. Thus, face-to-face meetings, when used correctly, can allow the Western business person to be more effective in managing partner relationships and negotiating deals.
Refusals are Best Given in Private
As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, Chinese place a lot of emphasis on respecting an individual’s Face and avoiding public embarrassment. And no matter whether you are a Western CEO, director, manager, or regular employee, this is a concept that cannot be ignored. To succeed in China it is vital to retain your key managers and employees, as well as to maintain good relations with partners and clients. This is made difficult by the fact that Chinese can be extremely sensitive to how they are perceived and treated by others. Unlike in Western countries a badly timed refusal or reprimand can burn bridges or cause employees to quit their job. Thus No Chinese employee wants to have an idea rejected in front of friends of colleagues by their supervisor as it can be interpreted as a slight (and lead to embarrassment or humiliation). By the same token, when dealing with a Chinese colleague who is your direct superior or higher in the corporate hierarchy, a Westerner should be careful to not to offer a direct refusal or criticism in front of other employees. Chinese leaders feel a they are due a great deal more respect and prestige than other employees, and some are used to never being wrong where their subordinates are concerned. The best strategy for when a refusal must be given is to attempt to offer as much cushioning to the person’s Face as possible. One way of accomplishing this is to talk in a private setting with no one else around your Chinese colleague might be more willing to listen. You can also try to be indirect in your refusal or make sure your refusal doesn’t state your boss as part of the reason (even if he or she is). It is all too easy to burn bridges colleagues, supervisors, clients and partners through losses of faces, even when it is unintentional. And while it can be a chore to dance around a Chinese business person’s Face in order not to insult them, in the long run it is a much safer bet to ensure a successful and worry-free (as much as can be expected) working environment.
Hierarchy & Harmony Can Create Complications
The emphasis on hierarchy and harmony in the Chinese business environment creates more distance between different levels in an organization as well as reducing the ability of Western managers and leaders to easily receive feedback from employees, and effectively communicate throughout all levels of an organization. When a Western business person wants to find out what managers and subordinates think, especially regarding an uncomfortable issue, it’s best not to do it in a formal setting with other employees present. One option is to pull them aside for an individual meeting, or assign that task to their direct supervisor. And while this isn’t a catch-all solution, it reduces the pressure the employee will feel and increase the chances of getting more honest feedback. And while training can indeed allow some Chinese employees to be more at home in a Western style work environment, it’s not a given. Many Chinese employees do, and will continue to prefer to be in an environment that contains traditional Chinese values. In light of this, Western managers can benefit from developing a strong team of managers and support staff, some of which should be familiar with both Chinese and Western methods, and thus able to act as a go-between.
When in Doubt, Follow Up with Specific Questions
It can be very frustrating for Westerners in China to be constantly met with vague answers and inconclusive feedback. In some cases an individual will simply not know the answer and will have been covering up that fact. In others, they will be trying to protect you (and they) from an answer you will likely not want to hear. First and foremost it is important to understand that in most cases this is not “lying” as Westerners know it; this is something that the Chinese have been taught to do (directly and by example) since a young age. Understanding and accepting this will allow you to withhold blame from your employees (a good first step) and focus on making them comfortable enough to give you the information you need. In the event that vague answers are received from employees, colleagues, or service providers, answers can sometimes be obtained by gently asking follow-up questions, or asking related questions to try to uncover the information that you need; getting straight answers is seldom easy but is less difficult if a Chinese person doesn’t feel embarrassed. When receiving vague answers about potential partnerships and meetings it is harder to judge, even to the Chinese, what is really going on. The easiest way to deal with this situation is to check back on a regular basis. If you keep getting the run around for more than a few months then the answer is most likely a no. Getting a direct response out of the Chinese is also something of an art form (which the author cannot claim to have completely mastered), but as with any art form the more practice, the better you will become.
Don’t Expect A Discussion In Formal Meetings
Business in China revolves around protocol and etiquette, especially on formal occasions. And while different organizations might indeed possess different cultures and personalities, larger Chinese organizations by and large focus on formality, and observing the proper etiquette and protocol. When a Chinese company or organization meets with another (e.g. a Western company), the key issues likely on the table are discussing pre-agreed upon topics, building or managing the relationship between the two organizations, or taking direction (e.g. from client to consultant). In this context, Chinese organizations and managers do not like to discuss controversial topics which hold the potential to cause loses of face or create an uncomfortable atmosphere. To have a conversations about details and specifics, wait until the after the meeting to discuss things in a more informal setting. Another option is to hold individual talks with your equal in a Chinese organization (e.g. manager to manager).
Don’t Forget That The Chinese Want Something Too
One thing that can be easy to forget amid the flowery and vague language used by the Chinese, is that there is very often a specific goal in mind during meetings and discussions. Yes, its true that the language used by the Chinese sounds undecided or noncommittal but don’t fool yourself, and certainly don’t let them fool you. The politician that says he needs a few more weeks to decide on a matter may have already decided against you; he is simply choosing not to refuse you directly either to save you face or to act in a manner he or she considers dignified. The Chinese businessman that is waffling over the details of a contract might actually have a specific change in mind, but is simply biding him time or is embarrassed to bring it up. Chinese leaders especially will often already have a firm opinion or course of action in mind; due to the specifics of Chinese organizational hierarchy many if not all of the key decisions come from the CEOs or equivalents with little or no actual discussions from subordinates. So make sure and pay attention; if you can discover what is is a Chinese businessman or politician actually wants, your job will be that much easier.
Thanks for reading!
Do you know any other ways in which one effectively communicate with the Chinese aside from those mentioned above? Do you have any additional problems or questions that the above points don’t address? Please feel free to post your thoughts to the comments section below.
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Many of us have experienced that negotiations only start after contracts have been signed… your article sheds a light on where this comes from.
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Thanks for the comment. The issue with contracts in China also has to do with the country’s weak legal system. Even when a contract is signed it can be too hard to enforce.
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