One of the companies where I train recently opened a plant in China, so doing business with Chinese people has become a topic of great interest for a lot of the participants in my training program. Some of these participants recently had the chance to attend an intercultural training session that highlighted some of the key differences between German and Chinese business people. As this topic is also useful for me as a Business English trainer, I asked for the highlights of the training. While there were many more interesting points, these stood out the most:
While this is a broad generalization, Chinese people can roughly be split into three categories: those born before 1950, those born before 1980 and those born after 1980. Most of us will likely have no business contact with older Chinese people, but the cultural distinction between those born before and after 1980 can be significant. A person born before 1980 is more likely to have traditional Chinese attitudes to certain business topics. These can include giving more respect to older people over those younger – regardless of experience, emphasizing consensus over making decisions quickly to avoid anyone “losing face”. The younger generation, however, has generally had much more exposure to other cultures – through the internet, movies and other media. This will frequently mean that they are more likely to react in the same way a young person from the US, Germany, France etc. might react.
Yes and no
Another generalization is that Chinese people “never say no” when doing business. While this obviously isn’t true, it might be helpful to keep in mind that the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, which are very straightforward for those of us from many European backgrounds, can be used differently by our colleagues, customers or suppliers from China. Here are some quick equations:
Are you looking for cultural insights?
Read the other articles in our Intercultural series:
- How the British handle difficult questions.
- Doing business the Dutch way
- Keys to doing business with India
Do you have specific questions about how to deal with international colleagues or partners? Or, have you gained cultural insights through your work in different countries? Let us know!
“Yes” + concrete days, times and details = yes.
Keep in mind, however, that unless you are speaking to the CEO of a company, it is likely that any important decisions will only be made after consultation with other stakeholders in the company. Pressuring someone for concrete details, promises or a definitive “yes” can put them in a difficult situation and any “promise” you force from them may well be negated by someone further up the hierarchy. Likewise an agreement that has been made without the consent of the bosses further up the line may not be considered binding as it was made without consulting them.
“Yes” + phrases like, “I’ll see what I can do,” “I’ll speak to my manager,” or “I’ll have more information for you later” = maybe.
For many cultures, including the Chinese, saying “no” can be considered impolite or an admission that you are unable to help the person asking. For this reason, a “yes” or “maybe” is often qualified with another phrase allowing the respondent to avoid making promises he can’t keep.
“Maybe”, “It’s possible” = “I don’t know” or “no”.
In some situations, it can be difficult for any of us to say “I don’t know”. This seems to show a lack of knowledge or authority on our part – and in certain types of social or business interaction, we don’t want to give that message. In Chinese culture, the situations where this happens can be different to many European cultures but the reaction is still the same. Forcing the respondent to admit they don’t know or that they don’t have the authority to make that decision will be embarrassing to them and may cause resentment which, in the long run, will be bad for you.
High context and low context communication
An example of a high context sentence might be, “Could we open the window?” An example of a low context sentence might be, “You smell bad.” Low context communication, or the “direct approach”, can make Westerners appear clumsy and unsophisticated, or even impolite to their Chinese counterparts. This can also come across in what might seem to a European or American to be a simple statement, e.g. “You have to do x”. “That’s wrong” or “You can’t do that”. When you are writing an email or speaking to a Chinese person (or any other culture for that matter), listen to the phrasing they use and word your requests, suggestions and advice in a similar way.
The information presented above barely scratches the surface of the cultural differences that we can be faced with when working with Chinese counterparts. However, it highlights some key things we can think about when it comes to building business relationships with the Chinese. It also, hopefully, minimizes misunderstandings.
If you are interested in learning more, take a look at these blog articles: