Communication Is About More Than Language
The meeting was over. Mr. Smith walked away happy, thinking they had decided to do X. Mr. Chen walked away happy, thinking they had decided not to do X. Both remained happy, or did until Smith phoned Chen asking why he wasn’t doing what they decided upon. Hearing this, Chen asked Smith, “What do you mean? I am doing what we decided upon!” Happiness (on both sides) was now replaced by an uglier feeling: mistrust. Not a good foundation to build a business relationship upon.
The above situation happens far too often. Both sides, Western and Chinese, listen to the same words but hear different meanings. Why? Culture, or, more precise, the way each culture trains its people to use language to communicate.
No matter the culture, communication always has the same goal: to transmit messages from the sender (writer, speaker) to the audience (listener, reader). But just because goals are the same doesn’t mean each side must use the same method to achieve the goal. Think of two football teams. Each wants to win (has the same the goal) but one uses a defensive strategy and relies on counterattacks to score, and the other uses an all-out offensive strategy and relies on scoring more goals than it gives up.
Cross-culture communication is different than a football game though: there is no referee and the true goal is both sides win (understand each other). To achieve success each side must be aware of, and sympathetic to, the other side’s way of communicating. You could call this wearing the other side’s glasses, or the ability to see things the way the other side sees them.
This creates a big problem for Westerners; they think their way of communicating (of “seeing”) is the only or the right way. But it’s neither: there are other ways to communicate and each is equally right. All that truly matters is both sides (or at least one side) understands how the other side is using language, and are able to use language that way.
But what does “using language” mean? First, it does not mean different languages, French, German or Chinese, but more the way a language is properly used. For example, when would you start talking “actual business” in a first business meeting? Probably in the first few minutes if in North America; before that you might talk about sports, the weather, your background, the traffic. Polite conversation. And going past a few minutes would be considered impolite.
Now move to Beijing or Taipei, scheduled for a 1-hour first meeting with a potential customer. If you started talking actual business before the last 5-10 minutes (or maybe talked business at all) the Chinese would feel uncomfortable. It would be impolite conversation, and probably unsuccessful as well.
Every culture has unique Rules of Communication. Decided by how they help the culture achieve its ultimate goal, they are easiest understood as how to the rules of “being polite.” A few examples Westerners know well are: get to the point, ask questions if you don’t understand, state your opinion openly if you disagree and, above else, be clear. We use these Rules because they help us learn. The West is a knowledge-seeking, results oriented culture.
Chinese Rules of Communication are very different. A few examples: try not to disagree openly, don’t embarrass someone in front of a group, don’t show you don’t understand something, don’t ask superiors difficult questions and, above all, be polite. Chinese use these rules because they help maintain stability among and harmony between people, the twin goals of Chinese culture.
What likely happened between Smith and Chen was Chen, not agreeing with what Smith wanted to do (X), but also not wanting to disagree openly, used the common Chinese technique of raising polite “objections” to X to communicate “disagreement.” (Just one of the ways the Chinese say no without saying “no.”). Smith, used to clear disagreement, probably answered the objections and when Chen never actually went on to disagree to X, took that to mean Chen agreed.
Success communicating across cultures depends not just on language skills, grammar, vocabulary and idioms, but equally (if not more) on how language is used. Westerners tend to stress clarity and directness, Chinese tend to soften the effects of what they say by saying it in a roundabout, indirect way (especially if it is negative). Neither way is right, just different.
Western success communicating with Chinese depends on patience and paying attention to peoples’ feelings. Don’t rush into a subject, or rush to find out everything you can right away. Don’t rush to solve a problem or make a deal. By rushing (doing things as quick as possible, another Western cultural communication Rule) you will naturally use other Western Rules. And you will have problems. Chinese will think you are disturbing harmony and human relationships
Take solving a problem for example. What’s most important? Finding out why the problem is happening of course, normally by asking questions. But when the discovery (rather than the preserving of harmonious relationships) is most important, you may embarrass a person by asking an awkward question, or expose that a person doesn’t know something, or point out that someone made a mistake. All fine if done in the West, but less so in Shanghai.
Yet Chinese solve problems too, and find out things. The way they do it is different, that’s all. Very different. Problems wouldn’t be solved in a group (more than 2 people), and care would be taken throughout to make sure people were not embarrassed or had their feelings hurt. Harmony would always be a consideration.
It takes a lot more time and effort to do it the Chinese “human first” than the Western “facts first” way. Which is frustrating. But the Chinese way works, it’s what the Chinese use, and, if you want to develop good relations with Chinese, it’s what you should try to learn how to use as well. This is where the need for patience comes in.
There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that you will need the patience, and that communicating with the Chinese is often frustrating. The good news is that you can succeed, and that it actually is easier than you’d think. It’s all in how you look at it.
Everyone wants to know “how to” but that’s not the problem. The problem is Westerners don’t understand the “why to,” why the Chinese think the way they do. Far more important than learning another table-manner technique or an ancient stratagem is learning to see the world like Chinese do. You have to wear Chinese glasses. Once you do all Chinese rules and ways start to make sense, and once that happens the rest becomes easier.
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