Preference for Indirect Communication

East Asians, including the Chinese, have long held a reputation for their peculiar habit of preferring indirect communication when saying “no” to any direct request, as well as their preference for indirect communication against explicitly indicating what they want. More likely, this is so as to not cause a person to lose face, helping preserve the harmony deemed very important within any Chinese social group.

Chinese are taught at an early age to be mindful of whom they are speaking to and how they say things, and to respect face. One of the advantages of this type of communication is that it is much more polite. Westerners who learn to be more indirect will have greater success working in China.

With China opening its borders, this preference for indirect communication often clashes with the difference in culture from those of Western Countries, with the latter preferring to be blunter, more confrontational and less mindful of their words.

While Americans and/or Germans and other westerners will choose to say “No”, the Chinese may simply just “shrug”, deflect, show negative body languages and to some extent, look for other verbal substitutes, such as saying “I will consider it”.

It is also important to note that when speaking verbally, the Chinese language does not have any equivalent for the direct “no” and “yes”, which may be the reason why the Chinese prefer to use their body language to connote their reluctance to doing something. However, with this requiring a person to read between the lines and be more sensitive, straight talking cultures, which are predominant in the West, may consider this a communication barrier that can lead to needless conflict should there be a misunderstanding.

There is also great emphasis in avoiding a confrontational approach and doing anything to bring any problem out into the open or letting it escalate. For example, shouting, getting angry, slamming of doors, pounding of fists on the wall, etc., are all gestures that one must avoid, for they have serious implications.

In written communication, the tone should be formal, but friendly, and attention should be given to establishing a relationship before getting into the purpose of the letter or email. Regardless of the means you use, electronic or by post, ensure that your missive is professional. It is never advisable to make attempts at humor or sarcasm to someone speaking English as a second language, as these can be easily misinterpreted.

More importantly, in the corporate world of the Chinese, various acts and gestures must first be understood by western entrepreneurs and/or businessmen looking forward to penetrate the market, which may include:

  • The emphasis on seating arrangements during meetings
  • Punctuality
  • Importance of hiring an interpreter for business meetings, as it is preferred that Chinese be the chosen medium for such transactions.
  • Emphasis on seniority, ranking and social status. Chinese will assume that the first person to enter the room is the leader of your delegation.
  • Business cards are exchanged upon meeting. These cards should be printed in Chinese on one side and English on the other side
  • Make and bring documents in English and Chinese for all meeting participants
  • Importance of mianxi or saving face – never put anyone on the spot or challenge anyone during the meeting
  • And so much more ….

While it may not be easy to understand all of these at once, a basic understanding of the basic concepts of their culture and a keen eye should prove useful in making research projects, and business in general, within the Chinese world more effective.

Next: China’s Emphasis on Social Belongingness