After almost a year in China my mandarin is still pretty primitive, I won’t bore you with the usual excuses but I will say that from my experience Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world to grasp. While there may not be any differentiation between past and present tense or male and female, there are five tones to get your ear and tongue around. In most languages you typically only need to worry about embarrassing yourself with mispronunciation, in Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese) you also need to pay careful attention to tones or risk calling “a beautiful lady” a “beautiful cow” or worse still confusing your mother for “a horse.”
I may still be struggling with the basics but learning a language at any level often delivers a deeper level of understanding around the country’s culture, vital for living and working abroad. For a westerner more familiar with a Roman alphabet, Chinese characters are often difficult to decipher. However, when you break down the characters and the origins of each, you begin to gain real insight into Chinese logic. It is this understanding that helps to ease culture shock and make conducting business with Chinese colleagues and partners much simpler.
Obviously this comes easier as an expat living and breathing the language and culture, but thankfully renowned British linguist Richard D. Lewis adopted another method to help us understand communications with other cultures and particularly how different countries deal with negotiations. The communication charts he created are featured in his book When Cultures Collide, where he attempts to outline typical negotiation characteristics across 27 different countries, highlighting culture-specific behaviors, range of conversation and any potential obstacles. Having worked with up to 27 different markets in EMEA and colleagues from across the U.S. for the past four years, and now with my experience in China, I’d have to say that while these simple diagrams are fairly generalised, they’re remarkably accurate.
The English, for example, often spend the first 10 minutes of a meeting with small talk before casually introducing business into the conversation, during which there tends to be some resistance, a moment of deadlock, some humour and stalling, finally with a summary of the key agreed items and a decision at the next meeting. Americans, on the other hand, like to lay all the cards on the table and reach a conclusion as quickly as possible. Whereas the Chinese, begin with moderate and moralistic exchanges which often progress into louder, semi confrontational discussions with negotiations behind the scenes. Other elements such as position, power and the concept of face play a vital role in communications in China, certainly more so than I’ve ever experienced in Europe and the U.S. For instance in the West, employees are often encouraged to question their bosses, even so far as to challenge them openly in public meeting. However, in China employees are typically more submissive and do not tend to voice conflicting opinions, particularly in a public setting; meaning a leader in China is often under more pressure as their expected to have all of the answers.
We are all often guilty of neglecting these fundamentals elements of communication in our day to day work when dealing with multiple markets, up against tight deadlines and stressful situations, sometimes even becoming frustrated that we are not getting the information we need in the time or manner we need it. However, this should serve as a reminder to us all that cross culture communication is not a simple matter of being able to speak the same language.
Ryan Whelan is a Daniel J. Edelman Global Fellow from London working in the Consumer Marketing practice for Edelman Beijing.