Cross-Cultural communication in China: West vs. East

Cross-Cultural communication in China: West vs. East

Hello everyone,

My name is Jenny and I am the office manager of InternChina in Qingdao, soon I will go and open a 3rd office for InternChina in Chengdu. The first time I came to China was almost 4 years ago and since I was fascinated by the Culture and the people here, I decided to come back and actually work for InternChina in the future. China is fascinating me also because every day here is a new challenge! Even though, I am trying to improve my Chinese skills every day and a lot of Chinese people (incl. my colleagues) speak a very good English – I experience so many misunderstandings and situations in which I need to take a deep breath before I react, as people here are just communicating so differently.
This week we will start a series on our InternChina blog with a more Business-related focus. So, today’s blog will kick-off with giving you an idea of how different communication in China works compared to Western countries. In this article, I am focusing on general communication patterns in China, illustrating by using typical business situations.

When we talk about communication, we need to make clear, that it doesn’t only involve what we say but also how we say something. This can include body-language, gestures, mimics, volume and of course speed and intonation. Communication scientists, trainers and coaches like to refer to the iceberg-model, where the top of an iceberg (about 30%) is usually WHAT you say, whereas the underlying bottom which is hidden in the water (ca.70%) is HOW you say something, such as voice, mimic, gestures, the context in which you say it etc. This means, when you are transferring a message, most of your message is not transported by your actual words but by how you put your words.
Another model, which we should take a look at is the “Communication square” or “Four-Ears-model” (from a German scientist called Schulz von Thun), which implies that all verbal messages being sent, need a sender and a receiver. Each message hereby is sent on 4 different levels (free translation): 1. Formal Level (“The actual information”), 2. Self-revelation level (“what the sender is telling about himself”), 3. Relationship level (“What the sender thinks about the receiver, in which relation is the sender to the receiver”), 4. Plea level (“What the sender wants the receiver to do”). This model describes in an ideal case how communication works and can explain why misunderstandings in communication can occur. The idea is simple: If every message is sent on all levels, but some people weigh one level more than another, it can happen that the receiver is receiving a different message from the one which has been sent by the sender. Then we have misunderstandings and miscommunication. We can use this model to understand communication between man and women, but also to describe different ways of communication between different cultures.

Another approach to compare different cultures is the one from the scientist Edward T. Hall (“Beyond Culture”, 1976). He finds, that some cultures are communicating with a “high-context” and some cultures use a “low context” for their daily communication. Germany for example is a Low Context Culture – they say what they think and think what they say, messages are sent explicitly. They expect the same thing from their communication partner, so they avoid any misunderstandings through interpretation, maybe that’s why Germans are considered as so efficient (and unhumoristic) in the world. A typical example for a High-Context Culture is China: Messages are sent implicitly, there is space for interpretation, which can lead to even misinterpretations and misunderstandings. This is acceptable as long as two individuals or groups from one culture communicate with each other because they know what to expect – but it of course can lead to problems, as soon as two individuals or groups from two different Cultures communicate with each other.

If we apply these different models now to have a closer look on the Chinese culture, we will get some interesting findings. Even if you are not a scientist, these models can help to understand a little better, WHY certain things in China are done as they are done.

In a next step, I will try to describe three typical situations in a Chinese business. In all three situations Westerners are involved: as colleagues, interns, or business partners.

  1. I want to start with the typical case of a mid-aged Western manager who is about to freak out because he told his Chinese team already the 100th time, that deadlines are important. His Chinese colleagues will say “Yes Yes, no problem” and next time not meet the deadline another time.
    What happened? If we use the Iceberg-model to explain what happened, we could say, that it was less important WHAT the manager said but actually more important IN WHICH CONTEXT he said it. He didn’t speak to Westerners, for which it is clear what a deadline means. He spoke to Chinese colleagues. If you take the Communication Square to explain the situation, you will find that Germans (and other Westerners) send their messages mostly on the first level (“formal information”) and 4th level (“peal”), whereas Chinese receivers hear much more on the 2nd and 3rd level. So, for them, the deadline itself is not important – it is much more important of who told them that there is a deadline and why the sender wants them to hold the deadline. This is how the misunderstanding occurs: As Chinese are much more focused on relationships (so-called “guanxi”), a manager with a close relationship to his employees (meaning they actually accept him as an authoritative figure in a paternalistic understanding) will much more likely get a feedback on the status of the project and eventually has a chance to intervene when deadlines can’t be met. A manager with a good understanding of Chinese communication also will never shout at his colleagues because this means that not only he will lose face, but also will make his colleagues losing face as they have to watch him showing negative emotions and losing control about himself. The respect for him will be gone most likely and they won’t make any effort to change their behavior.
    Possible solution
    :Most of Westerners believe in fixed deadlines, so when we fix a date with our clients and pass it on to our colleagues, we believe they will first of all try to meet the deadline and secondly if they can’t make it, tell us what the problem is (right in time!) to find a solution. This might apply in Western countries with Low-context cultures, where we as receivers expect the sender to send us a clear message explicitly, non-negotiable. However, in China as a High-context culture a message is sent implicitly and a receiver would always expect “more” behind a message. Therefore, a deadline is not necessarily a deadline and everyone knows, there’s a silent consent about this idea, so no need to cry over spilt milk and invest more time in building up a trust relationship between you and your colleagues.
  2. A second very typical situation is a Western intern (let’s say a German), who is doing an internship in a Chinese company. He was told to be patient with the tasks, they will be given to him probably a little bit later, first he should get to know his colleagues better, then it is easier to assign tasks to him. After one week only sitting around, he will start checking Facebook and newspaper websites regularly during work-time. After two weeks, he will start leaving the company about one hour earlier and complain to his friends he has nothing to do, even though his colleagues seem to be nice in a way.
    What happened?
    The German intern expects a working–environment in which orders are coming up explicitly and very formal. Messages are usually sent in the first level, receivers will get the message on the first level, there is no space for interpretation (“Communication square” and “High-context vs. Low Context culture”). Additionally, communication about private topics at the working-place is not very popular in Germany, even in other Western countries you try to keep private communication to a lower extent than in China. But in China communication works differently.
    Possible solution: Before formal tasks can be assigned, it is helpful to get to know your team, drink a tea together, get familiar with your colleagues, get to know them – really get to know them – make guanxi! Talk with them about their families, food, their dreams and hopes, share your free-time with them, accept dinner invitations, speak as much Chinese as possible… etc. And your question as an intern to your colleagues “Can I help you?” will be received as a friend, not only as the “strange Western intern”, that nobody knows. It is much more likely you’re your colleagues actually really make an effort of assigning more tasks to you, if they know who you are and how you actually can help them as an intern – what are your skills, what are your interests? Not WHAT you say, but HOW and as WHOM you say it, is significantly important in China.
  3. The third situation describes the typical Business dinner with a Chinese company and the Western buyer, who actually just wants to talk about “business” during a “business-dinner”. After a while, the Chinese side just thinks: “Phew, why is he so not relaxed and just wants to talk about serious things, we just started our dinner…!” and the Western client after 2 hours of drinking and small talk will think: “Phew, when can I get out of here to sober up a little bit – and why we still didn’t have the chance to get any commitment from the Chinese side about our deal?”.
    What happened?
    Chinese people are traditionally skilled at Trading. Buying and selling –for the best price of course, is their mission. Business? Is a game! If you don’t understand their rules, you lose. It helps if you understand a little bit about Chinese communication to be more successful in China.
    Possible solution: The rules are simple, you “just” need to play them; drinking and small-talk during business dinners. Compliments are not to be taken serious, Chinese people will always try to flatter you, it makes you vulnerable. It is part of the game, so don’t be surprised if they don’t MEAN what they say. In China, everything can be interpreted. Thus, emphasizing something’s beauty vehemently, also can mean the complete opposite. If you explain this with the Iceberg model, you can see again, that it doesn’t matter WHAT you say, but HOW you say it and in which context. If a Chinese business partner says, he can imagine to work with you, it doesn’t mean that you need to take your laptop out and talk about business the next half hour. It could mean, he is thinking about working with you on another deal or it could mean not to work with you at all because later you fail the drinking contest or you say something that could make him think that you are mistrusting him. It always depends on the context he is saying it in.
    Interestingly, there’s no “NO” in China, but a lot of ways of saying something, that means “No”. If you analyze this situation with the High-context-Low-context model, you will find that in such moments as business dinners, you will need to take someone with you who is not only a translator but actually can explain you the RULES of the game, otherwise it is more likely that you won’t be successful.
    Or you start learning about these rules yourself.

This is easily done! Just send us your application to and we can help you finding an internship in China where you will have the chance to get to know Chinese Business Culture through a first-hand experience!