The Nuances of Cross-Cultural Communication

Across industries, Chinese and Western managers say their main difficulty doing business with each other stems from poor communication. Both groups need to understand the cultural differences in business communication, etiquette and how their actions may be interpreted. This note introduces readers to some of the most important cultural dissimilarities and suggests strategies for communicating effectively while respecting these differences.

Different Roles, Different Contexts

Communication serves culturally determined, fundamentally different purposes in the East and the West. In Western culture, due in part to its history of formal contractual dealings, managers see business communications as an exchange of information that often ends when a deal is completed. The Chinese, on the other hand, regard communication as an integral aspect of building and maintaining long-term relationships. In each, the role of communication is framed in a distinct cultural context. In Chinese (or “high-context”) culture, verbal communication is most accurately interpreted in the context of nonverbal communication (such as gestures, stance and tone), social hierarchy and other background information. Social roles and a concern for respect and harmony inevitably have a bearing on communication. In fact, it is possible for the nonverbal aspects of communication to override what is being stated explicitly.

In contrast, in the United States and many other Western (or “low-context”) cultures, the verbalized message is the principal source of information, rather than the context, delivery or implications. Business interactions are expected to be direct and forthright — indirectness in communication may be considered devious or, in extreme cases, even deceitful. Given these fundamental differences in the role and context of communication, it is important for both Chinese and Westerners to understand the assumptions of the other culture.

Understanding Guanxi

To get a sense of the Chinese cultural context for relationships, consider the following phrase: “The meaning of person is ren.” Ren can be translated as “humanity,” also as “core,” or “seed of a fruit.” The Chinese character ren comprises the characters for “two” and “person.” This etymology (“two people”) suggests that in the Chinese context, no person exists except in relationship to another, and that in this relationship lies the birth of all possibility. Ren, in turn, leads to an understanding of guanxi, a type of connectedness achieved through relationships that are based upon trust, respect, reciprocity and shared experiences.

For the Chinese, wealth is measured in terms of connectedness. In short, you are who you know. In this way, social networks are business resources and vice versa. For example, when introductions are made, the Chinese want to know how a person fits into contexts that they recognize and to which they relate. Thus, the Chinese expect people to situate themselves immediately in a conversation, both professionally and socially. Westerners might try to find mutual acquaintances or ties through schools or professional organizations.

While providing some kind of reference for where one fits into the social structure is certainly not the same as having guanxi, it may offer the basis for pursuing the development of guanxi between parties. Guanxi is usually strongest among family members, but it may also occur among people who have shared significant experiences. In general, the Chinese prefer to do business with friends and people they know, so they devote much energy to creating and nurturing relationships with people they see as having  guanxi potential. Westerners doing business in China have the greatest potential when they invest in the relationship as a long-term end in itself rather than a means to an end.

Group Dynamics

With the strong and lasting influence of Confucianism, Chinese culture greatly values group harmony. Accordingly, the Chinese style of communication aims to preserve harmony. Strong displays of emotion, especially negative feelings, are seen as disrupting the balance. Thus, the Chinese tend to rely on indirect comments and the larger context for communicating a message. In general, they seek to show respect toward everyone who holds the same social status in business culture, and they tend to speak in terms of “we” rather than “I,” reflecting their fundamental value of the group as their primary social unit.

Moreover, because the Chinese do not want any individual to lose “face” in the eyes of others, they will not blatantly blame or call out another person for having committed an error. Rather, the group deals with the problem in a nonthreatening, face-saving manner. Westerners should realize that face is a subtle concept, and it’s possible for people to lose face with various degrees of severity. It might seem obvious that people could lose face if they failed to win a crucial negotiation, but they can also lose face if they are embarrassed or contradicted about even a minor issue in front of others. Loss of face can cause serious damage to relationships and business opportunities.

Given this belief, the Chinese are also concerned about saving Westerners’ face, whether or not Westerners are themselves concerned. In helping Westerners maintain face, then, the Chinese are keeping open the possibility of doing business by building a relationship based on mutual respect and reciprocity.

The Chinese “Yesno”

The emphases on building guanxi, promoting group harmony and maintaining face also explain the reluctance of the Chinese to say no. The meaning and usage of the word “no” represents a fundamental difference between Chinese and Western communication practices. Westerners interpret and use no literally, as an indication that something will not happen, that a request will be denied, or that the issue should not be pursued further. From the Western point of view, no usually means no — end of story. This meaning presents certain challenges in the Chinese context. While the Western use of no in  either business or cultural situations usually pertains to a separate transaction or demand, the Chinese have difficulty translating the Western nuance of the word’s meaning into their own way of communicating because they do not readily split business or cultural exchanges into fine parts or disconnected concerns. The Chinese are much more interested in communication as a fluid element that supports the ongoing formation and refinement of a relationship. This means the Chinese are reluctant to use the word no at all because it signals that the overall relationship, rather than simply one request or dealing, may be in jeopardy.

The Chinese communicate no through a range of phrases and supporting facial expressions, gestures, silence and deferral of the issue at hand. Essentially, the goal of a Chinese speaker is to remain polite and save face for everyone involved in the discussion. This means that, rather than saying no outright, a person may hesitate when responding to a specific request, may couch a reply using vague terms such as “perhaps,” or change the subject altogether. The Chinese speaker expects his or her counterpart to pick up on these subtleties and react accordingly by neither engaging in confrontation nor pursuing the issue further. From the Western point of view, this indirectness can be interpreted, at worst, as indicative of secrecy or dishonesty, and, at best, as showing disinterest or incompetence. The simple word no carries the potential, therefore, for long, complicated misunderstandings between Chinese and Western business associates.

Contrasting Chinese and Western Communications: Concerns and Practices

Chinese Western
Concerns saving face frankness or “honesty”
respect and politeness assertiveness
compromise and flexibility self-assurance
general feeling or “spirit” specific terms
social status task at hand
patience time efficiency
Styles and Practices reserved extroverted
tentative firm
personal impersonal
no body contact hugging and back-slapping acceptable
no pointing index finger used to point

Basic Rules of Business Etiquette

In order to understand the verbal and nonverbal exchanges that take place in Chinese business, one must first develop an awareness of the setting and social norms. The Chinese culture is based in large part on maintaining hierarchies while demonstrating mutual respect and avoiding conflict. This is especially true in business interactions, so it is best to be patient and polite at all times. Manners-based values provide the foundation for basic business etiquette in the following areas:

  • Introductions: Beginning with the most senior person and working down the hierarchy, introductions tent to be formal and include handshakes as well as business card exchanges. As a sign of respect, cards are presented and received using both hands. The recipient should take a few seconds to examine the card. (Westerners need to be aware of the traditional Chinese naming convention that places the family name first and the given name second.) In general, the Chinese refrain from outward displays of emotion and do not embrace or kiss when greeting or saying goodbye. At the end of a visit, the Chinese often choose to demonstrate respect for a visitor by accompanying him or her to the outer door of the office.
  • Entertainment: The Chinese typically entertain visitors with banquets consisting of several courses. Seating arrangements are expected to adhere to and reflect the social hierarchy. Numerous toasts are made throughout the meal, and everyone is expected to participate; it is acceptable to request a nonalcoholic drink for toasting. Smoking is common, and guests are usually offered cigarettes. Tipping is not customary, but both parties are expected to vie to pay the bill.
  • Gifts: Gifts are important symbols used to cultivate relationships and demonstrate respect. Small gifts like company mementos are seen as signifying respect and consideration for the host. As with business cards, one should present and accept gifts with both hands as a show of respect. The Chinese do not usually accept a gift when it is first presented because accepting in haste is thought to be aggressive or greedy, whereas politely refusing two or three times displays the more desirable characteristics of modesty and humility. Also, it is not expected that gift recipients will open presents in front of the giver unless they are encouraged to do so.

Some Strategies for Effective Communication

Due to the differing philosophies of relationship and communication, the possibility for misunderstanding between Chinese and Western business people is immense. Nonetheless, these differences can be bridged successfully if both parties make an effort to be attentive to the context of communication and — particularly in the case of Western business people — to be aware of the subtle nonverbal signals that may be used to indicate disagreement. All parties should be especially conscious of allowing speakers a way out of uncomfortable or potentially compromising situations. Above all, both parties should first cultivate self-awareness. Only after looking at our own culture with fresh eyes can we begin to see how others see us. Following are some suggestions from a group of Western expatriate managers working in Asia:

  • Use wording that is less directive and more suggestive. For example, “could be” instead of “should be” and “perhaps it could be seen in this way” rather than “I think.”
  • Structure exchanges so that they occur in a group context. Employees may be more willing to speak for the group than for themselves.
  • Devote the time and energy to build and maintain personal, face-to-face communication. Perfunctory, infrequent visits will not be interpreted as an investment in the relationship.
  • Refrain from showing anger.
  • Give credit to others. The group will realize the context and see you as invested in the group.
  • Handle criticism carefully so that individuals do not lose face in front of the group.
  • Be aware that often there are other parties to whom you have not been introduced who may be involved in decisions.
  • Make efforts to alleviate miscommunications as quickly and as earnestly as possible.

This post is excerpted from Darden Professor Ming-Jer Chen’s technical note Cultural Foundations in Communication: Relationship-Building in the Chinese Context (Darden Business Publishing), prepared by Kelly L. Thomas (MBA ’03) and Darden Professor Ming-Jer Chen. The information is adapted from Professor Chen’s Inside Chinese Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide (Harvard Business Review Press).

About the Faculty

Ming-Jer Chen

Chen is a leading authority in strategic management, a field that helps companies align corporate policies and resources with strategic priorities. He is recognized for his pioneering work in competitive dynamics — how firms compete and collaborate worldwide — and ambicultural management — how to integrate the best of Eastern... Learn More

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