A Cultural Guide to Communicating with Your Chinese Colleagues.

Written by Megan Harwell and originally posted on blog.lingolive.com

The world is changing. New technological breakthroughs are happening every day, allowing more people to connect with each other. Whether it’s via social media, Skype, or actually moving to another country to be with the person (or company) they love, people from all over the world are communicating more and more. While sometimes the content being shared is questionable (Ricky Gervais’ cat is a Facebook celebrity), it also allows companies to find talent all over the world and allows people to go anywhere to follow their dreams.

With this new freedom and increased cultural blending, people are beginning to navigate new waters- uncharted territory of communication. This is especially true in companies hiring employees from different countries and bringing them to the US for work.

While this brings many new opportunities, it can also be a bit baffling, especially for countries as distinct as China and the US. More and more tech savvy Chinese are coming to the US in search of career opportunities, but the cultural divide between China and the US can make it feel as though we come from different planets. Why are Americans obsessed with football and pumpkin-spiced EVERYTHING? Why do the Chinese constantly drink hot water and have an excessive number of talents their parents have cultivated from an extremely young age?

Understanding another person’s culture (or at least being aware of it) and how they communicate is invaluable in a cross-cultural work environment. Of course, it gets work done and makes everything efficient. But, more than that, it allows people to connect- not only do they work better together, they enjoy working together. Working together is no longer a chore or a job requirement, it’s a unique facet of the job that gives a new perspective on the world. And it does make the job MUCH easier.

So, what is important to understand between the way Chinese and American people communicate? In a nutshell, the modes of communication are at complete odds. Opposite ends of a long spectrum of communication. From a social behavior standpoint, this is understood in terms of high context versus low context cultures, with Chinese culture because an extremely high context culture and American culture being extremely low context. In the US, nearly all of what is said can be understood without context or at least not much. In China, the same phrase could have completely different meaning depending on the situation or the context. This forms the backdrop and the basis for the differences in the way the Chinese and Americans communicate.

Direct versus Indirect:

Why talking to Chinese coworkers might feel akin to untangling a ball of yarn.

The most obvious manifestation of high versus low context is basically that Americans are direct and the Chinese are indirect. If an American wants something or needs to know something, they just say it or ask about it. Chinese people will ask around a question or speak around a topic and the listener reads between the lines.

EXAMPLE: Letting someone know you need a minute of their time.

The American Way: “Hey, are you busy?”or ”Do you have a moment?”

The Chinese Way: “Have you eaten yet? It looks like rain today, did you bring an umbrella? Even though it is important to work with all your strength, you will catch a cold with this air if you are not careful.

So, when talking to Chinese employees, it is important to remember that they are not used to being so direct- for them, it can be off-putting or even confusing. And when it sounds like they are speaking in cryptic riddles that even the Sphinx wouldn’t understand, to them they’re meaning is clear.

It is also worth mentioning that the organization of how information is presented differs.

EXAMPLE: Presenting Information

The American Way: State the result of an action of summarize the point of a presentation before delving into specifics.

The Chinese Way: Start with the details and then pan out to the general point or main idea.

To Americans, this can sometimes makes it seem like a Chinese person giving a presentation has no point (like being lost on a wild mountain path as it begins to grow dark and at every twist, wondering, in the deepening gloom, if there is a bear lurking just around the bend) — but it is just a different method of organization. Your Chinese colleagues may not be aware of the reason you or other Americans are finding their presentations confusing. Letting them know how information is typically presented in the Western world and giving them templates/structures to follow (for example, PREP- point, reason, example, reiteration of point) is extremely helpful and make communication clearer for everyone.

The Ancient Mystery of Face in Chinese Culture:

More revered (and feared) than the art of Kung Fu

Much of this indirect communication and focus on details has to do with the Chinese concept of “face”. “Face”, in Chinese culture, is someone’s dignity or honor, and it is extremely important. Companies have lost millions of dollars in an effort to save face. People have murdered other people in the name of face. People have completely ruined their own lives for the sole purpose of maintaining face. These cases are maybe a bit extreme, but they serve to show how important face is and how far people will go to preserve face. It is deeply ingrained into Chinese society.

The reason it is important to be aware of the concept of face in terms of communication is because the Chinese communicate so indirectly as a way to save face and help maintain the face of others. Not knowing the answer to a question loses face. Asking a question with unsatisfactory answer loses face. Simply put, Chinese communication serves to promote harmony and save everyone from embarrassment or possible dissension. Throw no stones, make no waves (sounds like an ancient Chinese proverb, right? This is why.).

Americans don’t typically see being wrong or making a mistake as a problem. No one likes making mistakes, but they aren’t typically soul-crushing (with the exception of those involved in the BP oil spill). The culture promotes honesty and openness. So, if there’s a problem, highlight the problem, fix the problem, move on. A “waves are not a problem, let’s build a board and go surfing” sort of mentality.

Face makes having a simple conversation, or giving criticism, very difficult at times. While the Chinese don’t typically attribute the same rules of face to foreigners, the concept still saturates their communication. If there is a problem, they might find it difficult to discuss. Being patient and trying to fame a problem in different terms is important to open the lines of communication. On a further note, meeting one-on-one with a Chinese colleague to give criticism or discuss a problem is extremely helpful because face does not exist then (usually), as there is no third party to witness the humiliation.

Emotion and Persuasion:

It’s time Americans admitted they are sometimes overly enthusiastic

Another large distinction in American versus Chinese communication is the use of emotion in speech, and especially the use of emotive arguments in persuasion. Americans tend to be extremely (and maybe sometimes overly) enthusiastic and positive. Everything is awesome (or mind-numbingly awful, but no one dwells on that). Made half-burned pancakes this morning? Smothered in chocolate syrup, they were fabulous. Saw a mediocre movie last night? Yea, it was absolute garbage, but the explosions were fantastic. Calm Americans still tend to be about four-and-a-half times more emotive than a typical human. Hey, silver linings, right?

This is especially true with persuasion. American arguments are not just logical- they are emotional. The speaker must convince the audience that they themselves are completely invested in their idea and then need to give the audience an emotional connection to the argument, making them equally enthusiastic about the idea.

In Chinese culture, being too emotional is embarrassing (unsurprisingly, it loses face). Standing out from the crowd ruins the harmony of the crowd. China is a collectivistic culture, meaning the good of the community is more important than the individual’s benefit.

Another pertinent fact is that China, with so many people (1.3 billion, but who’s counting?), is VERY competitive, and not being the best is a way to lose face (surprise). Children from a young age learn to blend in and not speak out if they aren’t going to be the best- and honestly, being the best in China is A LOT of pressure, so many children naturally shy away from it.

So, when the Chinese want to be persuasive, they use very logical arguments and focus on how what they want will be beneficial on the whole- but maybe will not help the specific audience they are trying to persuade.

China also does business differently, building a friendship and relationship with someone they want something from- going to dinner, drinking, socializing. This relationship is sometimes more important than what is actually being discussed, adding another facet to the differences in persuasion between the two cultures. It is, rather obviously, necessary to be aware of these differences while working in the marketing field or having to give many presentations to different teams within a company, persuading them to help with a project or redirect their attention to a different theme. There other ways to bring emotion into persuasion, such as pitch, pausing for effect and using vivid vocabulary, that will not make a Chinese employee feel like a dancing monkey leaping into a tank of sharks during a presentation AND will allow them to be more authentic and express themselves more clearly, and therefore, be more persuasive.

The Delicate (or Not so Delicate) Realm of Criticism:

Sometimes sugarcoating it is unhealthy AND confusing

Now is a very good time to mention criticism within the realm of Chinese and English communication and in terms of shows of enthusiasm. While Americans are very direct, they often tend to soften blows of criticism by making something sound better than it is and sneaking some criticism in. “Wow, your presentation is coming along so quickly, it’s great! Maybe you could consider adding some more specific content to your slides.” Read: Your presentation is not well thought-out and devoid of any real content, fix that.

For a culture known for extremely indirect communication, it is ironic that this confuses so many Chinese people when communicating with English speakers, but it does. Part of this confusing simply due to a language barrier- it is much more difficult to pick up subtleties in another language. Part of it is, again, the culture — Chinese people are used to being told what to do more explicitly. A boss or teacher in China would give work with the exact specifications and expectations involved in the work, while in the US, there is a lot more independence involved- it is expected that you will figure things out for yourself and gives you some room to make the work your own. This is again a difference between a collectivistic and a non-collectivistic culture. American bosses expect employees to be self-sufficient to a large degree. Chinese employees expect their boss to tell them exactly what needs to be done. This is a very important cultural distinction that begins early in life and frames the way Americans and Chinese people look at expectations in, not just the workplace, but life in general. Giving Chinese employees concrete instructions is extremely helpful. Being clear when it is expected that they arrive at a solution on their own is important, too, as well as understanding that this might be extremely difficult for them- it is literally a foreign concept.

Wielding Power:

Apparently the Chinese like the clarity of a direct order

English speakers also tend to be more more polite when they need something or are giving directives. When someone needs to talk, they may say, “Hey, have you got a moment?” An American would understand this to mean the person wants to talk and would stop what they were doing, unless it was actually impossible, to listen. A Chinese person would understand this as a literal question and respond with “No, I’m busy, maybe later.”

Same goes for telling someone to do something- “If you get a moment, could you…?” Translation: You should do this. Chinese hear this as “if you’ve got time..” and think I don’t. So, being clear with directives is important, as well as framing them in positive terms for everyone involved, because the Chinese are community oriented (patterns are starting to form, aren’t they?).

Honestly, Speaking a Foreign Language is Hard

The final communication barrier, and this is true for all cultures, is very simple, but something native speakers take for granted. Idioms. Slang. Cultural references. Abstract stories with a moral snuck into layers of intangible thought. These are all VERY difficult to understand in another language. Maybe Americans have grown up with the phrase “when pigs fly”. A Chinese person hears this and thinks, perplexed Pigs don’t fly and how are airborne pigs even related to this conversation about next Tuesday’s deadline?. These language devices are deeply ingrained from childhood and are embedded in the culture, but when someone doesn’t come from that culture and have not been raised using those phrases, they make no sense.

Even when a foreigner speaks like a native and is completely immersed in American culture and society, there are going to be things that they’ve missed or haven’t come across (this happens to native English speakers too, just at a lesser frequency). So when communicating with a Chinese colleague, or anyone using English as a second language, using less slang, less abstract stories to make a point and fewer obscure idioms will help ensure that the meaning is clear.
It is worth also considering that being a good communicatorin general is important. Being aware of cultural differences that interrupt fluid communication is not useful is someone is not a good communicator. Actively listening to the other person in a conversation, paraphrasing what they’ve said, and checking in frequently to make sure the listener understands what the speaker is saying (not just using the filler “you know what I’m saying?”- that doesn’t count. And fillers are not part of good communication, by the way.) will go a long way in productive communication between all parties.

Culture is a very broad, yet incredibly complex and intricate topic. Making generalizations about a culture can be dangerous, offensive and completely unhelpful. However, working to understand another culture and at least being aware of it (because sometimes it just doesn’t make sense), shows respect for the people from that culture and being colleagues at work, mutual respect increases the effectiveness of communication and productivity. On a more human note, it allows people from different cultures to connect with each other, no matter how strange or foreign another person seems, because that sense of “What in the name of all that is good are they trying to say?” goes both ways.

A Handy Consolidation of the Tips Covered in Article (which should still be read!)

  1. Being too direct can be confusing or off-putting to a Chinese person.
  2. In China, the organization of information differs- details first, general idea/main point at the end. This structure can often be confusing to Americans make a presentation seem to lack a point. Giving Chinese colleagues templates to follow, like PREP, can be very helpful for them.
  3. When giving criticism (or wanting feedback), a one-on-one scenario is much more effective, because it takes away the embarrassment of a third party.
  4. The Chinese are not used to incorporating emotion into their arguments, and being a good speaker is something that even native speakers have to practice. Giving them pointers in how to add emotion to their presentations (changing tone and pitch, pauses for emphasis, and using vivid and descriptive vocabulary) and explaining how and why Americans persuade is a good idea (i.e. pointing out that it is helpful to appeal to the audience’s benefit directly instead of just the overall benefit).
  5. Chinese people like to hear criticism as it is- they tend to take what is said at face value (this is in part due to the language barrier), so if something isn’t great, they would prefer not to hear that it’s great. Giving clear, honest criticism is most helpful. Same goes for directives or favors- keep it clear and simple. Don’t ask, just politely let them know what is needed.
  6. Using idioms, slang, cultural references and abstract stories can be really confusing to non-native speakers. To make communicate more easily and make sure everything is clear, avoid using these aspects of language.
  7. Being a good communicator in general is, of course, going to improve communication. Expressing oneself well, being an active listener and tailoring what is said to the audience it’s being said to are all important components of good communcation.

Want tips for Managing non-native English speakers? Learn more tips for managing non-native English speakers with our free guide.

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