“Costello: Well then who’s on first?
Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Costello: The guy on first.
Costello: The first baseman.
Costello: The guy playing…
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.”
A LOT like it. In fact, they were so right on that I wonder if they were somehow some of the first pioneers into modern China. The language barrier is tricky, there is no doubt about it. Some mistakes are unavoidable, but there is a right way, a process, to go about communicating that can help you minimize those mistakes.
The first thing to understand is where the mistakes come from. Vocabulary is actually only a small part of the equation. Other major contributors to miscommunication are:
1) Cultural differences
2) Oral vs. written comprehension
Actually, most miscommunication is primarily derived from cultural differences assuming the party with lesser language skills is still relatively fluent. The only way to really understand cultural differences is with time and experience. You can hear stories and get some ideas, but most likely you will misinterpret the real meaning behind them, so, for the most part, the best thing you can do is know that you don’t know, and know that there are SIGNIFICANT cultural differences between China and the US. When things really don’t make sense, you are probably experiencing these differences, perspectives are just so different that you are coming from different worlds and interpreting the same situation very differently. Be open-minded to them.
A few common cultural differences are:
1) China is a “yes we can” society. They don’t like to say no. If you ask a Chinese factory if they can do something, they will give you the optimistic view every time.
2) Chinese businesses are very hierarchical. Middle managers and workers don’t make decisions, they just do work. If you want to get something done, it happens at the top.
3) Being “clever” is highly regarded. “Cleverness” can include cheating on a test to easily pass, using cheaper materials to increase margin, claiming a factory is yours when it isn’t…. Deceit is a pretty common occurrence in normal Chinese life, so it is not looked down upon in quite the same way as in the West. If you really want to understand, read “The Three Kingdoms”, one of the Four Famous Novels of China that epitomizes the level of deceit possible in a society, but is taken for granted in the historical fiction.
4) Guangxi/Losing Face: You’ll hear about these concepts…and probably pay them too much attention. Most likely your over-sensitivity to them will be used against you more than the concepts actually exist. In general, be polite, nice, and courteous and you will fit in well in the Chinese structure of things. Be wary of people who put a lot of emphasis on guangxi and “losing face”, China is probably more free market than the US, culturally, at this point and most Chinese businessmen won’t let traditional standards get in the way of a good business deal. It is common to “give face” by going to dinner, drinks, etc., but there are many examples of successful Chinese businessmen who avoid it altogether.
5) There is a lot of emphasis placed on roles due to thousands of years of Confucianism: Father/son, host/guest, supplier/customer…. The role of the supplier is to “make you happy”, which will often translate into telling you what you want to hear. It is also about being hospitable. Don’t misinterpret generous hospitality for a genuine relationship, that is just part of the role of being a supplier in China.
It is difficult to know what the cultural differences might be without a good deal of experience and time in China, but you can go a long way by just knowing that they exist and always keeping that in the back of your mind. Instead of getting frustrated with how communication is going, take a moment to think of what might be misinterpreted culturally and reword your communication for better results.