Word Associations

Cross-cultural understanding is more important than ever before in the global marketplace

Jan 14, 2009

-By Jiri Stejskal

Now more than ever, businesspeople in the U.S. must work to build strong and lasting relationships with their Chinese colleagues. According to the U.S. Census, China is now America’s second-largest trading partner, second only to Canada. And according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China is the fourth-largest economy in the world. In 1978, when China began its economic reform, the Chinese economy accounted for 1.8 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. By 2007, that figure had more than tripled to 6 percent.

Cross-cultural understanding will be a key factor in the cultivation of business relationships that will help stabilize the floundering global economy. Here are some differences to keep in mind:

Different target audiences: Because Chinese culture focuses on the importance of respect for one’s elders, marketers tend to focus on older family members rather than younger generations. Chinese people respect longevity and tradition, and will react more positively to messages that emphasize the history and prestige of a company rather than those that focus on the company as new or “hip.”

Yes and no
The words “yes” and “no” often cause confusion between American and Chinese businesspeople. The Chinese language has no real equivalent for “yes,” and Chinese people will sometimes use that word when they really mean “good” or “correct.” Also, a Chinese person may say “yes” simply to let someone know he has been heard, not that he has agreed to something.

Chinese people also try to avoid saying “no.” Therefore, if a Chinese person says he does not think something will be possible, he often means that it is impossible. 

It’s also helpful to know that mei wenti, a common Chinese phrase that translates literally to “no problem,” actually might mean that there’s an underlying problem the businessperson does not wish to discuss.

Key concepts in Chinese culture
Guanxi, or “relationship,” refers to the network of people that support one’s business. In China, business relationships are often forged on a more personal level than in the U.S., and business alliances in China more closely resemble what would be considered a friendship. Although cultivation of guanxi may include activities that would be considered bribery in American business ethics, gifts and visits from business colleagues are considered an important part of any Chinese business relationship.

Mianxi, or “face,” is another important theme in Chinese business relations. Chinese businesspeople focus on giving face (respecting and praising others, when it’s deserved) and saving face (participating only in activities that will strengthen one’s reputation). Publicly criticizing someone, even playfully, will cause that person to lose face, which is equivalent to attacking his character with a string of harsh insults.

Keqi refers to the importance of humility and modesty. In Chinese culture, it’s not acceptable to brag about one’s accomplishments the way Americans do. The commonly heard phrase Bie keqi means “You’re welcome” or “You needn’t be so polite.”

Considerations for transactions: Americans should use a simpler form of English, avoiding sports metaphors, idiomatic language and sarcasm that will confuse Chinese colleagues. 

Because of the lack of a true equivalent for “yes,” never ask a question in the negative when talking to a Chinese person.  The answer you think you’re getting may not be the one the Chinese person meant to give.

Don’t be offended when someone asks how much money you make or comments on the fact that you’ve gained weight. Both are examples of acceptable social interactions in Chinese culture.

Avoid messages that may cause “loss of face” for anyone involved.  Remember, the Chinese do not playfully attack one another’s character the way many Americans do.

Respect earns respect
No matter where you are, the best way to earn respect is to respect others. You cannot learn everything you need to know before walking into that first business meeting with a Chinese colleague. 

As long as you keep in mind the importance of respect, politeness and humility, you should be able to forge strong, long-lasting business relationships. 

Of course, avoiding all potentially embarrassing situations is probably not possible, but treating others with the respect and dignity that are so central to Chinese culture will help you bounce back more easily from any unintentional faux pas you may commit.

Jiri Stejskal is president of the American Translators Association. He can be reached at president@atanet.org.