What your Class on “Cross-Cultural” Communication Won’t Teach You
Genuine and unfiltered observations on communicating in China
An email slipped into my inbox with the following simple sentences:
Review again. This is not acceptable. Your boss send to me next time.
Staring at the page— partially due to the lack of rationale for and abruptness of the statement — I had to take a mental step-back and remind myself, “He probably didn’t mean it this way.” I have trained myself to engage in this mental process every time I am slightly offended by a work email, or in most situations in China for that matter. Far too many times an exchange gets lost-in-translation. Oftentimes, I mistake lack of nuance for impoliteness.
Despite some situations only boiling down to a lost-in-translation issue, I still struggle to navigate communicating in a Chinese workplace as an obvious American. At the risk of making everything seem like an oversimplification, I only speak directly from my experiences, thoughts, and feelings. I currently live in a fourth-tier Chinese town. At my factory and office with over 20,000 employees, I’m one of two foreign employees. Many of the locals have never seen a 外国人 foreigner before, besides on the Internet and TV.
This nebulous term, cross-cultural communication, is something that most business programs, conferences, and presentations boast that they can teach. We have all been there, in a class usually taught with the aid of info-graphics about how to engage in cross-cultural dialogue. Likely it highlights that the Chinese present their business card with two hands and drink white wine at business meetings. Yes, there is truth to these customs — the Chinese do indeed present their 名片 mingpian with both hands and a slight bow, and 白酒 baijiu is ever present during company dinners — but knowing these sorts of things isn’t going to necessarily get you closer to mutual understanding and acceptance. It will, however, save you from brutally flubbing up. Worthwhile? Yes. Completely effective without more context? No.
Below are the following communication habits I have noticed:
- Obvious statements count as greetings: Most entry-level Chinese classes will instruct the greeting, 你吃了吗? ni chi le ma? to see if the person they are greeting has eaten yet. Again, most entry-level Chinese students take this literally and start approaching everyone blurting out the phrase. Instead, it’s incredibly common for my colleagues to make a trite observation about either my appearance, clothing, or things I have brought with me to the office. Hailing from the snowy Northeast, my new residence on the same latitude as Florida feels like a tropical forest. I barely wear a coat, even in what they consider the dead of winter. Whereas, you will see the locals bundled up in down jackets! Therefore, I have earned the greeting by asking if I am cold 你冷不冷? ni leng bu leng? without fail. Unfortunately, this sort of greeting can become exhausting if you take it too seriously. It feels oddly personal and combative to me, in a way that is not intended.
- No filter, no problem: Unabashedly, colleagues will pry into my personal life. It is not considered strange or out-of-line to ask about salary, vacation days, or even love interests. Americans are social with their colleagues, a company happy hour or weekend outing is common. However, prying too much into personal lives, when there is a clear distinction between professional and personal, is seen as tacky or taboo. It is often hard to escape these sorts of questions when most of my whereabouts are conspicuous, because I live in company-sponsored housing.
- Relationships are best cultivated through meals: There is a general openness of speaking in relaxed, relationship-oriented settings, usually over a meal. More often than not, if I can get a colleague to go to a restaurant, that’s when I really connect with them and get the insights I’m seeking. It’s also common to schedule regular dinners with coworkers for no particular reason at all than to simply maintain the relationship.
- Contracts are a mere formality: There’s always what’s written, and then what’s actually happening beneath the surface. Most Chinese value careful contemplation about relationships — so contracts are less important. Thought this general rule didn’t apply to job contracts, but it does. Even if you do get a contract, don’t expect this to mean the deal begins immediately. The success of a deal will be heavily dependent on ongoing social relationships.
- Social posturing matters: I recently attended my company’s annual dinner — a gathering for employees right before the Chinese New Year. It was brought to my attention that the table assignments were carefully planned, because they clearly signal status. I was also instructed during the “roam around and toast people” portion of the dinner, to acknowledge certain high-level managers in order to respect their status and continue to develop a relationship. China is a high-context culture, tending to leave a lot of things left unsaid. I have found myself more acutely attuned to positioning and status than before.
- Avoid direct confrontation: I tend to follow the general principle that I’d prefer if you are blunt rather than suppressing how you feel and then becoming remorseful or passive aggressive. Americans are often expected to defend their ideas, which may lead to confrontation or debate. Avoiding direct and aggressive confrontation bothers me. It feels like we are shying away from the core of the matter. However, there is particular reverence for the concept of losing face 丢脸 diu lian— making sure that you don’t do something that publicly shames or embarrasses someone else, especially if they are more senior than you.
- Respect hierarchy and formality in written communication: There was once a time I had drafted an entire email and I was asked to send email to someone who can send it for me: my boss. I wasn’t allowed to send the email because my rank was not high enough. Anything in email is considered official, messages over WeChat or other messaging platforms is preferred. Email is considered a type of documentation that colleagues do not want to be “called-out” on. WeChat, now commonly used for many workplace conversations, has also developed a subservient culture around proper usage etiquette. If you are less senior, you should scan the QR code of the more senior person, for example.
- The customer is NOT always right: General customer service is virtually non-existent. I can’t even count the amount of times a waitress/information desk clerk/airport attendant/train conductor has told me that there is no way 没有办法 meiyou banfa. In the States, customer service employees will bend-over-backwards to ensure that the customer is satisfied with the service and will return. I won’t analyze too much why this is the norm in China, but I often find myself frustrated with the lack of attentiveness to find a solution. There just is no option, no solution.