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A Short Guide to Understanding Business Communications in China - CS EN


Analysis of several causes of misinterpretation that can arise between Western and Chinese culture if people stick to their own cultural expectancies.

For this paper, I will not only provide one small case study but also analyze some experiences which exemplify some of the typical problems that occur when western enterprises or representatives thereof, attempt to sell products or services into the Chinese market. Although some of these examples are not communication specific, they will serve to provide the reader with a better understanding of certain cultural elements which should, in turn, allow him or her to communicate more effectively.

I should point also out that by analysing not just one single experience but a collection of experiences that have been gathered through interactions with a number of different people in a number of different situations over a period of time they provide, to my mind, a more realistic overview of the difficulties that can occur if one is not “tuned in” to Chinese business expectations. It is problematic to use a single experience as a yardstick, and indeed difficult to judge if such an experience provides a true reflection of reality. By taking a broader view, however, we can understand what really are the “critical incidents” of this intercultural communication.

Due to the sheer size of this market, it is considered extremely lucrative for enterprises worldwide. We have witnessed in recent years a significant change in the “balance of power” between China and the western world, which has for most of recent history played the dominating role economically and to a lesser extend culturally. Thus we have also witnessed a marked change in the way the two cultures interact.
The development of the local manufacturers in almost all fields of consumer and commercial products has only served to accelerate this shift of power balance, and this is indeed reflected by the mentality of the local population as well. Indeed, one of the interesting facts in the ultra-competitive market of today (and again I am compelled to highlight that this situation has arisen due to the manufacturing of goods in South east Asia and most notably China) is that, except in a few specific circumstances, it is the buyer with an abundance of choice who plays the dominate role.

What makes this particularly interesting in when viewed in the field of IC is that the role of the “dominating” culture is defined purely in economic terms. For an enterprise to be successful, they must adapt to the expectations of the buyer both economically and culturally with the most common language being that of money. Indeed, to quote a well-known Western saying, “money talks.” In such a situation the dominant culture is, for the most part, that of the buyer and therefore reversible. If a Chinese firm is to market itself in Europe successfully it must, at least to a certain extent adapt to Western cultures and the same is true in reverse; when a western firm wants to market its products in China, it must be willing to adapt to the cultural expectation of the Chinese buyer. Thus economics in many cases will redefine the dynamics of IC.

A typical Case
In this specific case, a piece of technical equipment was to be prepared and configured in Europe and sent to China where it would be installed at the customer premises. This first phase of the project itself provides a perfect insight into some of the major differences as to how western and Chinese culture conduct business transactions.
The expectation from a western enterprise is that a set of detailed specifications would be provided by the customer and the equipment would then be built to this specification. The Chinese customer, however, expects that the equipment provider is competent enough to know what should be provided and therefore did not provide any specifications. When the local sales manager was requested to ask customer for specific information some reasons were provided as to why this could not be done, although an actual refusal to do so was never offered. The western engineers failed to understand that for him to ask such questions would demonstrate to the customer that our company is incompetent and also place him in what would be considered to be a compromising situation. On the other hand this refusal also gave the western company the impression that the sales manager was incompetent since none of the offered reasons seemed to “make sense” (in their eyes at least).
This small example highlights some typical “east meets west” clichés which are often encountered; namely that Chinese often see western firms as extremely process driven and thus inflexible, whereas westerns will depict Chinese as unorganized and difficult to work with since specific information is often not provided.
The “critical incidents” can be summarised as follows:
•    Use of Language
•    Information Flow
•    The lack of understanding of the “cultural norms” from each side.
•    Misaligned expectations due to cultural differences
The corresponding communication led both sides to feel some sort of mistrust and frustration towards each other.
What is important in analyzing such a case is to be aware that without a doubt certain issues can be attributed to cultural differences, and indeed are relevant from an IC perspective, but just as importantly many are not and are merely following the buyer/seller culture. The analysis in the second part of this text will use the aI2C model and attempt to determine which parts of the communications process are IC-specific.
Of course this is not to say all interaction with Chinese on a business level will always behave in this manner or that all Chinese display these habits, clearly such a statement is ridiculous and has little credibility, the point is mere that there are some cultural differences which if not understood, or at least acknowledged, can result is communication problems. After all, our cultures are indeed different; if they were not then the field of IC would be non- existent.
2. Analyse
Processus de communication
It is relevant to start the analysis here since a clear method of sending and receiving messages needs to be established before the other cultural differences can be taken into consideration. Although many intercultural communication theorists like to take the view that language should not be over-emphasized when examining intercultural communications, from my personal experience this fact cannot be underestimated. The fact is that messages are often misunderstood and misinterpreted.
Both sides often fail to transmit the message clearly due to inaccurate use of language which when coupled with the “noise” of translation and accent diminishes the chances that a message is clearly received. Adaptation of speaking style is extremely important, short and simple sentences a necessity, repetition (when sending a message into the unknown, the chances that it will receive are twice as good if the message is sent twice) and minimal use of what can be considered superfluous phrases is paramount. Although these may seem like obvious statements, the fact is that many people who are inexperienced in the field of communications simply assume that simply sending a message ensures that is has been received and understood when in many cases it actually has not.
Much has also been documented on the differences between eastern and western languages, notably the absence of the word “no” that occurs in eastern languages. e.g.: in answer to a “yes / no” question such as “do you have XYZ”, the answer is either, “have” or “not have”. The fact that “no” does not 
exist, is in fact relevant and one must be extremely careful how, if at all, to use it. In the example above, “No we cannot until criteria A, B and C has been fulfilled” can easily be misinterpreted as “No we cannot”. Aside from that, simple statements such as “this can be done”, used to indicate possibility can easily be interpreted as “this will be done”. Although this is a simple example, it serves to demonstrate how expectations can be easily misaligned through simple misinterpretation of language.
What is worse is that these misunderstanding will often be attributed to “differences in culture” when they may or may not be. It is often a simple case of the message that has been sent not being clearly received due to noise or interference and this actually has very little to do with culture or intercultural communications. That is not to say that there are not cultural differences at play, just that these differences are not the only relevant factors.
Cadres sociaux
This example clearly takes place between individuals who are representing Private enterprises, although the Chinese customer is actually a state-owned enterprise acting as a commercial body. Indeed, in many fields, the market in China is still closed with most organisations still being  state-owned or a state-run duopoly being the norm. More importantly, as described earlier, due to the fact this is a purely commercial incident; the “cultural balance” clearly lies with the buyer who has a number of existing local suppliers, who are linguistically and culturally competent, to choose from. Due to this, they can afford to have what might been seen as a certain arrogance, since if the western enterprise fails to meet their expectations there are a number of local suppliers who will. In such a case, it is the job of the western enterprise, who after all are participating in this not for an experience in inter-cultural exchange but purely for profit-driven motifs, to ensure that they adapt their  behaviour to meet the expectations of the customer, even if these expectations may seem unreasonable, pointless or not clearly defined.
As with the previous discussion regarding language, this is not an IC-specific issue but merely a model that can be seen in most economic transactions; it is the job of the seller to adapt to expectations of the buyer. Therefore when analyzing such a transaction, one must keep in perspective which events are actually relevant to IC. What makes it perhaps interesting in this case, perhaps not in terms of IC but cultural studies, in general, is that until recently there were no such equipment manufacturers in China (or only those manufacturing products of inferior quality) and the change that has occurred in this field reflects in a small way the change that has taken place throughout the country. One senses a certain self-confidence; an understanding that China is indeed a powerful nation and that the current generation is part of an important change that is taking place regarding China’s places in the world.
The role of the individual cannot be dismissed for no organization or enterprise can speak to each other directly; it is individuals representing the organizations in question who communicate with each other. The individuals can indeed be seen as the “medium” in this case that each organization uses to communicate. And depending on the intercultural competence or experience that the individual has, this will indeed determine how successful the information exchange is. Although the individual, can theoretically put all personal emotion aside when acting in a  professional role, i.e., representing his or her enterprise, the fact is that an individual who is not aware of certain cultural elements can severely impede communications and should not be under-estimated.
A western individual may ask himself why he must go and eat some strange animal once his meeting has been completed and indeed find it unreasonable that he is expected to do so. On the other hand, his Chinese counterpart might ask himself why his “guest” seems hesitant to come to a share this 
generous invitation to him and find that his guest is somewhat rude for hesitating to accept such an invitation.
The role of the individual within the organization will be discussed below since it cannot, in many cases be separated from the “identités collective.”
Configuration Culturelle
Aside from the aforementioned linguistic challenges there are also certain cultural peculiarities which need to be considered, especially with regards to verbal communications. Westerners generally expect a direct answer to a question and also express their own opinions quite directly. Under most circumstances, however, when faced with a question that he or she does not know the answer to, or indeed does not want to answer, this fact is generally not communicated.  The response “I don’t know” is seen to demonstrate incompetence. If a Chinese does not agree with a proposal, s/he will rarely state that directly but instead perhaps suggest a reason why something cannot be done. This in turn leads to further questioning which will not yield any answers meeting the expectations of the westerner and merely lead to further communication problems and frustrations. The westerner will feel that his Chinese counterpart is not providing information whereas the Chinese will wonder why the westerner cannot accept his answer and feel a sense of mistrust towards his counterpart.
The collective identity of the Chinese worker most also be considered. Within the western world the role and rights of the individual within the workplace is also extremely important. When faced with what could be considered an unreasonable deadline to meet a customers requirement the westerner will “do his best” to meet such a deadline but by no means feel he has failed if this deadline cannot be met due to what he may consider as unreasonable expectations. On the other hand when faced with the same situation the Chinese would see this as a team challenge that must under all circumstances be completed. Working extended hours at the expense hours of private activities would be expected and failure to meet the deadline could easily be considered as failure. (I will not discuss the social implication of this here). For this reason, many Chinese find it extremely difficult to comprehend why a Western enterprise cannot meet a demanding schedule and indeed often perceive Westerners to be inflexible, slow to react or even lazy. Whereas the westerner places his individual rights as paramount the Chinese will see it as his duty to meet the company’s requirements.
A more subtle point that one often does not notice at first, is the Chinese attitude towards westerners no means judgemental but nonetheless almost omnipresent. i.e., A westerner is generally seen as first and foremost just that, a “white person.” Phrases like “you would have trouble understanding this, since you are not Chinese” are not uncommon. It is always difficult to judge if such a statement actually has a grounding in the Chinese psych or simply something that can be used as a reason not to inform you about certain details. Certainly, however, one does sense that there is a certain hesitance to provide you with all the details of a particular situation.
Dimension Temporelles
Three factors should be considered concerning “dimensions temporelles.“ There is a saying that states, “There is no such thing as instant noodles in China” which is a way of stating that things do not happen overnight. Transactions that one could expect to be completed in a short space of time with the western world can often inexplicitly be delayed. No reason will be offered and indeed after some time one adjusted one’s expectations, knowing full well that no explanation will be provided.
Secondly, the length of time the westerner has been working together with his Chinese counterpart is extremely important. Aside from the fact that the westerner will after some time “tune in”too many things that are not apparently obvious at first, more importantly, is the building of trust between players. Westerns are definitely more direct with people they are not familiar with. Although one could easily argue that this is not specific to Chinese culture, it is a marked difference and something that cannot be underestimated.
The last and probably most important part of this whole analysis is that one must consider the historical dimensions of Chinese culture. One can talk of IC in the obvious situation described above, that of western Europeans interacting with Chinese, but it should also should be considered that within China, especially the well documented social gap between those living on the land and those living in modern cities there are also huge cultural differences. Many traditions, both business and otherwise, have been practiced for literally centuries and this sense of history still plays a role in business interactions today.  To the casual observer visiting Shanghai or Shenzhen for the first time and seeing the shopping malls, apartment blocks and traffic jams on the freeways, it is easy to get the impression that China has been completely westernized; that all sense of “old” China has been destroyed.
And at a surface level, this may indeed be the case. However once one scratches on the surface, one notices that many of the traditions are thankfully still in practice. The purely economic driven businessman would question my use of the word “thankfully” and find it questionable, since to his or her way of doing things it is indeed these inexplicable nuances that hinder what might be called an efficient transaction. However, to anyone else, who should have even the smallest interest in culture, it is refreshing to know that appearances are often just that. There is another culture at play. There are different ways of doing things and seeing things and the challenge is to understand and adapt to them.