Does “yes” always mean “yes” in China? How to give constructive criticism without anyone losing face? How, practically speaking, do my Chinese business relations prefer to communicate? And how do I write an effective e-mail to my Chinese colleague?
These are questions that we frequently get from the participants of our Chinese culture workshops.
Read along and get the answers from C3 Consulting’s CEO, Annette Dahl.
With an MA in Chinese, culture, and communication and more than 20 years of hands-on experience with China, Annette is one of Denmark’s leading experts of Chinese business culture.
In Chinese there isn’t a clear word for “yes” or “no”. The language is affected by the Chinese culture, which has a big focus on maintaining harmony. And a way to maintain harmony is to avoid criticizing, avoid asking questions, and avoid directly saying “No, we can’t”, “I don’t understand”, or “I think we should go in another direction”.
This doesn’t mean that your Chinese business partners can’t say “No”. They just do it in a more indirect way than we are used to in Denmark.
In China, the context of a conversation plays a much larger role than in Denmark. Where communication in Denmark is typically “low context” – meaning that the message can be understood directly from the spoken words – the preferred communication style in China is “high context”.
The “context” is everything surrounding the communication act, such as who are present, what their relationships are like, the atmosphere, the body language, etc. In this way, the spoken words need to be interpreted, as a large part of the message is to be found in by whom, how and in which situation the words are spoken.
So how do you know whether your Chinese business partner is in fact satisfied with a new decision, process, or deadline?
You learn how to read between the lines and to take the context into consideration, so you can decode what is really being said.
A good starting point is to go deep and ask a lot of clarifying questions. If you are in China, then divide your meetings into group meetings where you inform the group, and one-on-one meetings where you get input. Usually you will get different information under four eyes than at the bigger meetings.
And remember that neither Chinese people nor Danes have the “right” way to say “yes” and “no” – we just do it in different ways!
Face-to-face meetings are useful when you want to build relationships, which is essential when you work in China. Here you can build trust, and get to know each other.
If you have a meeting with many participants, don’t expect to get a lot of information from your Chinese colleagues or partners – the risk of losing face will typically be too large. Again: If you need information, hold the meetings in smaller groups, or meet your colleague/partner one-on-one.
When you communicate by e-mail, it’s more indirect than at face-to-face meetings, so it’s easier for you to get information.
If you need quick answers on specific challenges or questions, it’s often more effective to chat than to send an e-mail. The chat functions are very popular in China, and they are even more informal and indirect than regular e-mails. You can use the chat functions on, for instance, Messenger. Or even better: Use some of the chat forums that are most common in China – such as QQ, Weibo and WeChat.
The Chinese chat forums are a bit like Facebook. But where many Danes mostly use Facebook privately, WeChat and other forums can also be used in professional situations. Many Chinese are on WeChat via their mobile phones every morning and evening in the metro or taxi on their way to and from work. Here they answer quick questions and clarify details in a project or collaboration.
WeChat fits perfectly into the Chinese “Fast speed society”, where you have to act quickly, and many Chinese people think that communication by e-mail is simply too slow!
So download the WeChat app and add your Chinese colleagues and partners. In this way, you can build relationships while ensuring a fast and good communication.
Always remember to think creatively and out-of-the-box when you communicate with Chinese colleagues and partners – and be aware which communication channel is suitable for which purpose.
When you e-mail for the first time, use the entire Chinese name. When your colleague answers, notice which Chinese or English name he/she uses in the signature and use that afterwards. Traditionally you use the whole Chinese name, especially if you don’t know each other that well. But if your colleague signs with only a part of the name, you can do the same.
You can start the e-mail with 1-2 sentences of small talk such as “Is it still hot where you live?” or “Did you enjoy the moon festival?” It’s a way to build relationships with your colleagues.
Follow the principle “Keep it simple”. Avoid interposed phrases, parenthesis, and very long sentences.
If you write to achieve some sort of action, write it as “a task” in bullets. Write a specific deadline and explain how you will follow up on your agreements. For instance, you can say that the deadline is in 2 weeks, and that you will follow up a couple of times before that.
If it’s a complex matter you can make a phone call a couple of hours after sending the mail. That’s perfectly normal to do in China. In this way you can follow up, repeat what you said, and make sure that the assignment is understood.
Try to wrap the critical part into something positive when you give feedback. Use for instance the so-called “sandwich-method”: Start by saying something positive, give the critique, and end it with something positive. Even though the method isn’t specifically Chinese, it’s used a lot in China.
Most Chinese people are very indirect when they give criticism. This means that they are also very good at decoding when something critical has been said – even though it’s between the lines and a “typical Dane” would never notice the critical message!
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