• Thought Catalyst Partners

10 Rules in Cross-cultural Communication with Chinese Partners


China is the most populous country in the world with an estimated population of 1.4B people. As such, every businessperson is looking to tap into this population as a business growth strategy.

China is also one of the world’s countries that have upheld their traditions and culture for centuries. This goes from how they interact at the family level, to how they handle their business partnerships. The Chinese believe in guanxi; the special relationship between two people, which is focused on long-term mutual benefits as opposed to short-term personal

gain. Guanxi on a networking level is referred to as guanxiwang; a network of exchanges or transactions between two or more people for value and mutual benefit for every concerned party, whether directly or indirectly.

1. Speak Slower and Use Simple English

There are about 297 languages in China with about 56 ethnic groups. However, the main languages that are used are Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Min, Gan, and Hakka. It is therefore very important that when communicating, you speak slowly to allow for your translator to use the right words and intonations while translating your spoken message. Make sure that you prepare written material that is very detail-oriented, and where possible, have this translated into Mandarin. Make sure that the translation is done professionally to avoid embarrassments and miscommunication.

2. Allow for Rapport Before Jumping Into the Points

Guanxi focuses on the long-term mutual benefits of two individuals and is very important in Chinese interactions. For a business to succeed in China, a company needs to create rapport with the people they want to do business with, and this requires a lot of patience as it may take time. The older generation will more often use “Wine culture” while the younger generation will use “Tea culture”. Take time to understand the hierarchy of the company as due respect is always expected. Understand that saving face is important, therefore respect their way of doing business and ask your host where you are unsure. For example, in most countries, it is understood that a manager may give directives on a project with timelines. As a team, it is understood that these deadlines should be met. However, in China, the way the manager passes across the message and how he/she interacts with the team may play a very big role in whether his/her deadlines are met or if the directives are followed as given.

3. Use Probing Questions Instead of Asking if They Have Questions

Go into every meeting very well prepared and write down all the questions that you will need answers to. All the material should only be in black and white, as different colors have a different meaning in Chinese culture. When asking questions, avoid questions that only need a “Yes” or “No” answer. The Chinese find it very hard to say “No” in order to save face. Asking a question like this may get you a “Yes” answer when they really mean no. During your presentation, be as clear as you can be. When done with a specific point, confirm whether everything is understood or makes sense.

4. "Yes” does not always mean “Yes”

Smiles and nods in the Chinese culture do not necessarily mean “Yes”. Someone you are speaking to may nod to save face. Saving face is very important in all interactions and therefore in an instance where the Chinese host is feeling pressured or embarrassed, they may nod which to you means “Yes” but to them it’s a way to save face.

5. Be Aware of the Hierarchy and Show Respect

The elderly and people in senior positions are highly respected. It is very important that you observe the same level of respect and hierarchy when doing business in China. Use proper titles when addressing your host and their team. When going into a meeting, always show up before the meeting or be settled right on time. While entering the room, enter in the correct hierarchical order; from the most senior member of your team to the most junior one. When you walk in, bow or nod to show respect in the same order that you walked in. If it is commonplace to shake hands, let your host initiate this to avoid any embarrassments and to save face in case this is frowned upon. Conduct formal business introductions in the same hierarchical order; from the most senior person to the most junior person. State the name of your company, your title, then finally your name as this is the way most Chinese business people introduce themselves. The hierarchy and structure in business mean that answers and decisions may come from specific people. It is important to understand this and to give time for communications to be made within the company before decisions are made and you receive answers.

6. Avoid Saying “This is What We Do in our Country, You Should Adopt”

In the world, we have a lot of different cultures and ways of doing things. What is right in your country or culture may be considered very rude in another. It is very important to understand this and to ensure that you do business well with your Chinese host. For example, although most businesspeople are comfortable using technology to execute business dealings, the Chinese hold personal connections in very high regard. For them, one-on-one face-to-face business interactions are considered honorable and enforce their guanxi and guanxiwang way.

7. Pay Attention to Nonverbal

Communication Cues Non-verbal communication is highly regarded in the Chinese business environment. From how one dresses to how you hand over a business card, knowing the correct way to carry yourself can take you halfway through closing your business deal. Avoid personal contact such as holding hands or hugging as this is considered very rude. It is also considered very inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public. Always dress professionally for your meetings, and wear suits that have subtle colors. Women should avoid revealing clothing, excessive jewelry and high heels as this is not considered conservative. When talking, do not use too many hand gestures and if you must point, use an open palm. Do not look directly into the eyes of a person in a higher position than you. When addressing your Chinese hosts, always use family names and appropriate titles unless they give you the go-ahead to use their given names.

8. Understand That Over-Generosity is a Way to Build Relationships

While giving gifts is very welcome in the business world, it is important to note that it can be considered a bribe while dealing with government employees. When giving gifts, pay attention to the kind of gift that you are giving as some gifts are associated with death. For example, clocks, handkerchiefs and anything white, blue or black are associated with death. Quality writing pens and banquets are considered very favorable gifts. When giving a gift, understand that the receiver will decline it three times so as not to appear greedy.

Every time they decline it, you, as the giver, must graciously continue to offer it until it is accepted. Once accepted, thank the receiver for accepting the gift. The gift must be gift wrapped and offered with both hands as a sign of respect. The receiver will set it aside to open it later as this is part of their tradition. If you are presented with a gift, follow the same process of declining it three times, receiving it with both hands, thanking them for the gift, and setting it aside to open later. When offering gifts, wait until all negotiations are finished to avoid looking like you are offering a bribe. And as with all other interactions, offer the gift to the most senior person at the meeting. If you have several gifts, do not offer the same gift to people of different ranks. Offer the most expensive gift to the most senior person and work your way downwards. Always offer the gift on behalf of your company to their company, as this will solve the problem of it being considered a bribe.

9. Be Polite and Reject Questions or Offers You Feel Uncomfortable With

The Chinese hold saving face with great importance. Therefore, when declining an offer or rejecting a question, it is very important that you do so in a polite way to save face for your host. Saying “no thank you” is considered rude. The politest way to reject offers or questions that you feel uncomfortable with is by changing the topic, postponing it or giving a vague answer. For example, if asked a question, you could say that you are not sure of the answer. In this instance, you save face for everyone involved without being rude.

10. Focus on Common Values Instead of Differences

Coming from diverse cultures, values and ways of doing things may differ. However, many cultures have some things in common and these are what you should focus on. For example, building trust with the people. In the business world, companies look to build longterm relationships to ensure business growth and longevity. To this end, it is important to build on the things that give a common platform in the business environment as this creates a willingness for all parties to work together.

Excerpt from Market Entry 10x Series (2020), co-published by Brainsfeed and TCP Growth

#CrossCulturalCommunication #ChinaEntry #CulturalIntelligence #Leadership #CommonValues #GuanXi

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