Articles

Five Tips for Communicating With the Chinese

By Bill Quarless
June 2008

{Note: This article appears in the June 2008 issue of Electronic Retailer. Click here to read it on ER's site.}

Lord Macartney, the first British envoy to China, once said, "Nothing can be more deceptive than to judge China by European standards." Although 214 years have passed, that saying still holds true. Chinese business practices are slowly adapting to the Western style, but they still have 5,000 years of culture behind them.

STRENGTHENING RELATIONS

This is most obvious when it comes to communicating with the Chinese. The quality and quantity of your communication could very well determine the outcome of your entire China experience. With that in mind, here are some tips:

1. Know what you want. Go over every detail with your team and ensure there are no ambiguities. Product design, packaging, sampling, quality control standards, order quantities, lead times and regulatory compliance are just some of the issues that must be made clear internally before they can be clear externally. Uncertainty leads to vagueness, and being vague is a sure path to a communication breakdown.

2. Keep it simple. Be aware of the cultural slang we all use. "Raining cats and dogs" makes about as much sense to the Chinese as "he got fried squid" does to us (translation: "he was fired"). Speak in the simplest terms and don't assume anything is "common knowledge." Be explicit and repeat yourself often. Also, be careful of reading too much into body language. Even a vigorous head nod doesn't mean you're being understood.

3. Show as well as tell. The old cliché that "a picture speaks a thousand words" rings especially true when you don't speak Chinese. Here's an eye-opener: Even the staff at the factories themselves may be speaking different dialects. Your explanation for the engineer could be translated from English to Cantonese to Mandarin. The best way to shortcut this multilingual game of telephone is to show everyone--as much as possible--exactly what you want. The more samples, pictures or drawings you can show, the better.

4. Be aware of the cultural nuances. For example, the Chinese will rarely give you a straight "no" answer. Even if they've decided the answer is "definitely no," you'll be told, "We'll see." The Chinese also tend to overstate their capabilities for cultural reasons. They don't want to displease you and possibly lose face. I often hear "yes" or "no problem" in response to my requested production and ship dates. Then, when we go step-by-step through the schedule, it becomes apparent the factory cannot meet my schedule. Save yourself some frustration and remember this rule of thumb: "Maybe" means "no," and "yes" means "maybe."

5. Document every conversation. This is a wise business practice that's especially critical when there's a language barrier. Whether the conversation is in person or by phone, take notes and then recap everything in e-mail. End the e-mail by asking the factory to confirm its understanding. Also, use simple terms rather than long, loquacious paragraphs. Oh, and don't use uncommon words (like loquacious)!