Chinese styles of communication

Chinese often speak loud and fast and with a multi-faceted intonation. Sometimes their way of speaking sounds quite staccato.

Communication is relationship-oriented

But the decisive thing is that Chinese cultivate a style of communication that is orientated to relationships. Not the business, but the people are at the center of a conversation. So in a dispute Chinese will quickly give in, but by courtesy rather than conviction.

On the other hand, in some countries communication is primarily objective, which seems aggressive and unfriendly to many Chinese. In contrast to this rather direct communication, in which everything is addressed concretely, purely Chinese communication is indirect.

You will come across that traditional indirect style of communication mostly in many Chinese state-owned businesses and in big private firms. How you say something is then much more important than what you say. In communication with those firm representatives an excellent knowledge of people and acute observation are most advantageous. Expertise is of secondary importance.

However, in many modern private firms and in those managed by foreigners communication is increasingly changing. There a Chinese will speak more directly with foreign business partners than with his Chinese colleagues. A person’s place in the hierarchy also influences his style of communication.

Basically, a Chinese superior can permit himself to speak with his staff in a direct manner. A staff member will not dare to do that with his boss. But a direct-speaking boss will also formulate his critical words indirectly if the person he is speaking to is very important. The older or higher a conversation partner is in the hierarchy of a firm, the more respectfully and politely the others will communicate with him.

If you have a different opinion they will not contradict him. In China primarily adaptability and self-control are valued, while in other countries e.g. in northern Europe countries authentic behavior and critical openness are regarded more important. That is mirrored in the different styles of communication.

Small talk for building up personal relationships

For building up and keeping personal relationships in China small talk plays an essential role. To create a good mood, compliments on China and everything Chinese are always a good start. For choice of topics there are no strict taboo rules. However, there are touchy topics, such as the student unrest of 1989, conflicts with Tibet and Taiwan, censorship, corruption and human rights: they are certainly not suitable for influencing personal relationships positively. It depends of course on the situation and with whom, but also how you discuss such topics. If sensitive topics are brought up by Chinese, you should not try to discuss them objectively and factually, but rather in a low key and politely.

Foreign humor and jokes are not understood

Because of the different cultural backgrounds foreign humor and jokes are not understood by most Chinese. And anecdotes as an opening ploy and witticisms, e.g., at the beginning of a presentation, mostly have a counter-productive effect. On the other hand, seriousness is a signal of mutual respect to Chinese partners. So it is better to avoid witticisms at business meetings.

Decode agreeing and declining

For western business people it is often difficult to recognize whether a Chinese conversation partner is agreeing or disagreeing to a matter or suggestion. So as not to endanger harmony or out of fear of losing face Chinese avoid expressing a refusal directly. So you seldom hear a clear “No” but instead a “Yes” or evasive formulations. Chinese are capable of recognizing those fine nuances in communication, but foreigners perceive them only when they have developed a relevant sensitivity.

So try to expect that a refusal is expressed indirectly, with such statements as:

  • “This is very difficult for us.”
  • “We have to think about this.”
  • “We basically agree, BUT …”

As well as that there are some clear signals, such as:

  • Silence or hesitation
  • Counter questions
  • Change of topic
  • Placing extreme conditions
  • Postponements at short notice without substitution, accompanied by a statement such as: “I can’t keep the appointment today. But as soon as I have time I’ll contact you.”

So be careful with questions to which Chinese can answer only with a “Yes” or “No”! To avoid loss of face you will always get a “Yes” even when the answer is “No”. Hence, to keep a conversation going it is more suitable to use open questions (why, when, where …?).

No objective criticism

Chinese react far more touchily to direct criticism than people from other parts of the world. Whoever wants to express criticism in China should always keep in mind that the person being criticized wants to save face.

Chinese almost always take criticism personally. Objective criticism, which for example is highly regarded in German-speaking countries, is unknown in China. Instead they say: “Praise affects you like sunshine, criticism like an icy cold wind.”

So criticism, even when it is formulated neutrally, can quickly lead to considerable personal resentment between business partners and to loss of face for the person criticized.

Chinese will express criticism in an indirect way, for example:

  • Link criticism with praise: “We are very happy to have you on board and that the project is going ahead so significantly. However, …”
  • Offer friendly help: “Mr. Wang, is it possible that the quality of these products is not what we agreed on? Can we take another look together at the specifications? Perhaps you have overlooked something?”
  • Quote criticism of third persons: “We’ve received reports from some clients that there are problems with the quality of product X. Could you please check up on that some time?”
  • Stressing the desired situation: “We definitely need to reduce the qualitative variation from 2% down to 0.5%.”

Western-style adoption of delivering criticism can cause misunderstandings

Give your Chinese conversation partner or staff a chance to speak of mistakes made of their own accord. That is definitely better than criticizing them. On site you can bring up critical issues over a drink together in private.

How criticism is received is also linked to the individual character of the person criticized. With sensitive and defensive people criticism should be voiced more carefully than with people who can bear criticism.

Many Chinese have falsely made western ways of criticizing their own and sometimes criticize more directly than would be acceptable in the respective world of work. Nevertheless, we recommend communicating critical remarks always very restrainedly.

Gerd Schneider
Jufang Comberg

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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