If you can’t communicate you can’t do business. Successful communication with Chinese needs more than a language in common. Good language skills—grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, idioms—in a common language are necessary but not sufficient. Besides a common language, communication success depends on a common way of using language.
Every culture develops a unique way of using language, called Rules of Communication. These rules explain how to be polite, respectful and efficient in that specific culture. What is polite in one culture can be very impolite in another. This is frequently the case with Western and Chinese Rules of Communication.
Misunderstandings are the biggest hidden cost in international business. Efficiency mistakes, “the wrong goods shipped to the wrong place on the wrong day,” are costly but not the worst. More expensive are relationship mistakes, misunderstandings that cause mistrust, hurt feelings or poor motivation.
Relationship misunderstandings are dangerous as relationships are how business is done in Chinese Asia. You avoid misunderstandings by knowing how Chinese see communication and business relationships, and why. You need to wear Chinese glasses.
Western and Chinese Rules of Communication are very different. In communicating disagreement, Westerners believe you should state opinions clearly, even (or especially) if you disagree: Chinese believe you should communicate negatives and disagreement indirectly, if possible by not using the word “no.” In asking questions, Westerners believe you should ask questions if you don’t understand, Chinese believe you should not show that you don’t understand something. Westerners embarrass Chinese by asking questions, Chinese exasperate Westerners by not asking questions.
Why do Chinese use such Rules of Communication? Geography tied the Chinese to the land and year-round toil just to survive, then social philosophers (Confucius and Lao Tzu) created a hierarchical belief system based on stability and obedience. There was no concept of equality: everyone knew their rank and how to accordingly. The No. 1 tactical goal (communication included) was harmony. Chinese culture became process-oriented, emphasizing how things were done, not what was done.
Fitting in to the group became the overarching goal. No matter what else happened group relationships must endure. Acting differently or arguing for something different was just not heard of. Independent opinions were bad. The Tao says, “he who knows does not talk; he who talks does not know: A good man does not argue; he who argues is not a good man.”
Yet Chinese still had to communicate. Chinese communication developed into one of the world’s most sophisticated and complicated. Understanding needed more than knowing the meaning of the words, it required skills similar to analyzing highly-structured poetry. Where a thing was said, between whom, how said, when and what was said before and after, these and other similar cultural clues are needed to understand Chinese messages.
Can you learn to apply these clues? Yes, but it depends upon changing your mindset, not memorizing a long list of tips. You have to accept that the Chinese way is just different, not wrong. This requires a basic understanding of why Chinese ways are as they are, a crash course in Chinese thinking. There is no other way to see things as Chinese do.
Accepting and understanding are the two lenses in your Chinese glasses.
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