By Ernie Tadla
Communication in any society, culture, organization, family, or relationship is always a key factor. Most conflicts could be avoided with good communication. Communication is simply that the receiver hears and understands the message from the sender.
I had always considered myself a pretty good communicator, until I went to China. I had problems in two areas.
Area number one:
Conversation. It seemed that conversations went on and on, lots of long, nice talk, fluff as I called it without seeming substance and action. I was used to meeting, greeting, spitting it out, shaking and moving on. The Chinese, and this has to do with face and guanxi, talk it up a lot: about how great you are, and how you look, with many flowery phrases and expressions about everyone and everything. They are social gabbers. Conversation is a wonderful part of their culture and happiness.
Ordering food in a restaurant was a lengthy, gabby affair. The person ordering and the order taker would have a conversation about each item. It was in Chinese so I didn’t know if they were discussing which part of China the cucumbers came from, how they were prepared, the appearance, or nutritional value. It just took a long time.
My lack of Chinese conversational skills cost me money in the negotiation ritual at the local market. Whittling the initial asking price down to half or less took an interminable period of talk, back and forth. If they ask 100 RMB for a scarf, following the ritual properly, you can walk away with it for 30 RMB, but you have to play the game.
I would imagine the buyer saying the price was too much because he had a large family staying with him — aunts, uncles, etc. — and that a better price would bring in more customers — his aunts and uncles. The seller probably whined about the size of his family and financial needs, the quality of the product, etc., etc. Through all the palaver, the price kept dropping. With me, with no talk, I had to use my palm calculator or write on my hand and say “no, no” to each proffered price.
Area number two:
In business communication with my boss and my staff. Dan had become completely China-ized in the thirteen years he had been there. He was fluent in Mandarin, had adapted to the Chinese way of doing business, had two Chinese partners, and accepted the Chinese culture, traditions and people. He not only spoke Chinese, he thought Chinese.
After our in-frequent meetings, and initially these were training sessions, I would walk away scratching my head and wondering, “Now, what did he really mean? What am I supposed to do? What is he expecting from me?” I was so unclear. Back home I was used to a brief conversation in which my boss would lay out the situation, discuss the solution, the plan of action and results expected, including the time frame. But Dan communicated in a high-context, indirect way.
When I talked to my staff, I told them what they were to do, asked if they understood, (they always said yes) and could they do it (Yes, again). When I checked later, nothing had happened.
I had a communications problem.
When it comes to communicating about communicating, you will come across the concept of low-context, high-context communication. Other descriptive words I use are low-direct-left-brain context and high-indirect-right-brain context. For simplicity, I am going to use the words direct, indirect.
Western people are usually direct communicators who:
• Take things at face value
• Focus on role, not status
• Focus on efficiency and effectiveness
• Direct questions and observations meant for clarity
Eastern, Southern and French people are indirect communicators.
• Body language is more important than what is said
• Identity and status are acknowledged
• Saving face is paramount
• Building relationship is more important than results
The Chinese make significant use of nonverbal communication, such as implied, hidden, nonverbal cues, indirect statements and symbols. They will always quote or introduce a famous quote or proverb. Their speaking is enriched by imagery and tidbits from their ancient wisdom. It definitely has right-brain flair to it. Their communication comes from a thread of long history of close families and interpersonal relations. It assumes a shared understanding between communicants. There are hidden meanings and implied assumptions
The emphasis is for the purpose of guanxi based on the trust and understanding, acceptance of long-term relationships coupled with the importance of face and social harmony. The effort is to save face, to not offend another person and to not upset the order of things.
For instance, Chinese people will never say no in response to a suggestion or question. They will often suggest instead that the matter be given further study, or another meeting be held. Open-ended questions are common because they don’t force a person into a corner like yes-or-no questions do. Rather than valuing directness, the Chinese are more likely to be polite, but vague. A high value is placed on ambiguity and tact.
I had to monitor myself in dealing with the staff, clients and others. Think about it this way. If I am talking to a person and I know they can’t or won’t say no, I must be careful not to set myself up with expectations that will not, cannot be met. Secondly, in the area of asking permission, if they always answer yes, it’s easy to take advantage of them.
I bought a magazine subscription for a Chinese friend in Shanghai. Shortly after, I returned to Canada. We communicate frequently by e-mail and Skype. (Skype is a free internet telephony and video service, www.skype.com) He is part of my China network. He never mentioned the magazine before. Yesterday, in a chat message he said he was reading and enjoying the magazine.
Here is what he was indirectly saying.
I have been receiving renewal notices for the subscription to the American magazine, which expires next month. The renewal office is in the U.S. and I am unable to send Chinese money to renew. I have no Visa or MasterCard. I enjoy reading the publication. Would you renew it for me?
If you ask a friend, “What time is it?” Here you will get, “10 after 2.” In China, they will answer, “Maybe it’s between 2 and 2:30.”
Or ask, “How much did you pay for that shirt?”
Here you might hear, “I got it for 25 bucks at the Bay.” There they will answer, “Maybe between $30 and $40.”
Communication Styles Comparison
|Low Context/ Direct||High Context/Indirect|
|private space||communal space|
|do it yourself||work as a team|
|task oriented||relationship oriented|
|tell it like it is||maintain harmony/ face|
|specific, facts||symbolic, circular|
|what is said is||how it is said|
|punctual, on schedule||what feels right at the time is important|
Ernie Tadla, www.odysseychina.net
Next week: Lesson Eight: The two things it takes do successful business in China