Communication in China

In China the primary goal of business communication is to create a lasting solid relationship based on reciprocal trust and harmony. You do business with friends only, not with strangers.

Small talk

Therefore, the first step in paving the way for business is doing everything to get to know new partners better through small talk. And as things progress, coffee breaks or dinners are regularly used to strengthen the relationship again and again through informal exchanges. This is how the Chinese test the reliability and dependability of their business partners and look for mutual interests on a personal level.

This verbal “scanning” is mostly felt as a pure waste of time by people from cultures not so oriented to relationships. Their tendency is to want to get down to business more quickly. However, without previous small talk the Chinese believe that the relationships between the persons involved are just not yet right, and they ask more informal questions. The more determinedly the others strive to bring the talk back to business matters, the more the Chinese endeavor to do even more to create a good relationship.

So plan sufficient time for personal exchanges to build up that very important relationship together. If the personal interaction is good, it will pay for itself later through the provision of essential information, solution of problems, and, most importantly, in long-term cooperation.

Indirect communication

The Chinese emphasis on relationships is evident in all other business communication as well. Conversation centers on people, not the deal itself. In China, communication is done indirectly and in deference to and for protection of the relationship. You do not confront others with negative statements, and certainly not with criticism.

So much is to be read between the lines, and critical words are well packed and delivered in a roundabout way. If a dispute is looming the Chinese will immediately give way even if it is not their inclination. The main goal is to preserve harmony and a good relationship.

Saving face

The background to that type of communication is saving face. “Face” in China is related to an individual’s social position and determines the degree of respect and reputation a person enjoys. The basis of that outlook is that a society can function only if everyone tries for harmony at all times.

Respecting the face of the others is just as important as saving your own face. Face is lost if someone does something harmful to another person or even to the whole group in a relationship. Examples of that are refusing someone’s request, breaking a promise, doubting the competence of a superior, or simply having a different opinion from your colleagues. All of those things endanger the harmony among those involved, and that is valued more highly than the truth of the situation.

Yes or no?

For that reason a Chinese “yes” is not always the same as a definite “yes”; it can also mean “maybe” or even “no”. Often it just means that someone is listening to you.

As a rule, the Chinese avoid offending others with a negative statement. It is best for you to stay vague, not to disappoint, not to criticize, and not to refuse. Even if you are not at all certain about something, it is expected that you willingly cover up by a “Sure, everything’s all right”, so you do not have to expose your weakness. In that way you save face for yourself and for the other person.

You will hardly ever hear from your Chinese business partners a clear “no” in response to a suggestion, but rather evasive explanations or responding with questions that lead away from the topic. Even standard comments such as “We’ll have to talk that over”, should be taken as a “no” in Chinese business culture.

No plain language

The Chinese are capable of immediately picking up such fine nuances in communication. Try to accept the fact that the Chinese communicate indirectly. Do not expect plain language, but listen closely and gradually put together the big picture. Keep in mind that in China there is an obligation to get your own information, everybody has to gather one’s own relevant information and judge it individually.

Therefore, the more open questions you ask (where, what, when, who …) the clearer that picture will become. Pay attention not only to the spoken word but also to context and signals such as silence, hesitation, or distracting strategies. Facial expressions and gestures often speak volumes.

Avoid criticism

Open criticism is avoided in China to prevent losing face for others and especially for you yourself. Reprimanding a staff member in front of others will unavoidably make him lose face. The boss loses face too, because he has made the questionable decision to put that staff member in an unpleasant situation instead of respecting and protecting his employee’s reputation.

Therefore, criticism is expressed only in private and very carefully and restrainedly. It is often hidden behind a lot of praise for other aspects or indirectly passed on to the person involved.

Inductive argumentation

In Chinese business culture the inductive way of argumentation is dominant: the speaker opens with many seemingly directionless statements. Only at the end of his explanation will he formulate his main thesis. That demands intense listening so that all of the points mentioned earlier can be put in the right context.
When Chinese and international businesspeople with different communication styles meet, there is frequently irritation on both sides. Non-Chinese often hear only individual points that seem to have no context. By the time the Chinese gradually present their main points leading up to the core statement, others have often already stopped listening.

So, if a guest conveys his most important statements right at the beginning, the Chinese regard that as just the “warming up” phase. They look for the gist at the end of the explanations, when possibly only irrelevant last arguments are made.

To be certain that your message does reach your Chinese partners you should present your core statements at the end – or simply repeat them many times. Then they occur for all concerned at the expected moment.

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