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Communication Chaos: 5 Ways to Keep from Losing Your Mind in China

May 03, 2017 By Ben Piscopo , Comments (8)     Add your comment Newsletter

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China is a very exciting country to be in for various reasons. For most foreigners, you’ve come for business, work or travel. But even though you've got so many tasks on your list, there remains one thing you can’t afford to botch: communication. 

Communication in modern China is probably not much different from how it was a long time ago; it certainly hasn't changed since simplified Chinese came around. Contrary to one assumption however, communication hasn’t gotten any simpler. In fact, if you aren’t prepared, it can be very easy to lose your mind. That’s where the group of foreigners within China gets separated… and the ones who can’t handle it end up going home. In light of this, here are some helpful pointers that frustrated folks might want to take into consideration. 

losing your mind in China

1) Laugh your problems away
This is one of the toughest things to get used to. It’s the awkward giggle/chuckle you hear when something goes wrong. Perhaps you gave a direct comment that surprised your secretary. Maybe a friend didn’t help with a task the way you wanted. Anything that takes an iota of effort could potentially be done wrong and a laugh is a way to combat losing face. In order to combat frustration, I usually make a game out of guessing what will go wrong. When a mistake is made, or a misunderstanding occurs, I compare it with my original guess. It is a little pessimistic, but it often helps me laugh the problems away... (and win bets, if you're the gambling type).

2) Guess the real meaning
Excuses for not being able to attend this meeting or going on that date are easy to spot. People around the world make excuses and this is not isolated to one country or region in particular. However, giving direct answers to questions in China rarely occurs. “Have you eaten dinner yet?” would be answered with the following: “Well, are you hungry?” The assumption is that you are asking about dinner because YOU are hungry, not because the friend might be.

When I recently tried to pay the bill for a superior’s lunch, the restaurant owner said, “He’s your leader, you don’t have to pay for him.” After I insisted and handed over the money, the owner came back to me and said, “Uh...He actually already paid for it while you were in the bathroom.” Of course, this was not true. The owner was just looking for a convenient way to make me take the money back, while saving both of our faces. This dishonesty is often considered a “lie” in the West, but it is a very common way to communicate here.
Avoiding moments of lost face causes a lot of unusual behavior in greater Asia. We might consider actions like the above to be spineless, but they are just happy no one has lost face. Harmony is then restored, which is supposedly good for society as a whole.

3) Respect and expect respect from others
Remember your age. Know your position. And anticipate when you can get away with things by being a “foreigner.” These are all very important things to consider in somewhat military-bound societies. Countries like Korea and Japan also have hierarchical cultures that give elders the most respected position. If you have a commanding position, you need to make decisions when necessary. When you are the subordinate, you should follow directions with no grumbling. Unfortunately, if you are told to do something that ends in failure, you will be blamed for it. Subordinate's role is not only to do trivial tasks, but also help cushion the blow to a superior's reputation when things go wrong. You can also do this when little things go wrong under your command.

4) Wait until the last minute
I know this sounds ridiculous but it is a common behavioral trait out here. Friends and colleagues often wait until there is only about 1 hour or less to get something done. Since “anything could change at any minute”, there is really no long-term planning for things done below the municipal level or across a local organization. Restocking, making phone calls, arranging meetings, booking flights, etc. These events are all done just before its necessary or no more than a couple days in advance. Expect things to be done last minute and don’t ask why when they do it that way. Asking someone to explain why something is done poorly or last-minute, will only alienate them and hurt your relationship.

5) Don’t take “yes” for an answer
One of the most important things to remember is that “Yes” is used as frivolously as a head nod. You know when someone is talking and you just nod your head to show you are listening? That happens all around Asia, but verbally. They say “yes” to show you they are listening or just to say “I hear you.” Also, people can’t say “no” to superiors. They will always agree to do what they are told, but if they really don’t want to they will find a way to ignore or put off the task later. So, expect flakiness and set your deadlines a little earlier. That way, when someone bails out on you, the task can still get done on time.

The above are just a few ways to keep from losing your mind in China. If you have some experiences yourself, please let me know. (ben@asianliving .me) And of course, Good luck!

Ben Piscopo has been an expat in China since 2005 and is the author of

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Keywords: losing your mind in China communication in modern China

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8 Comments ( Add your comment )


Yes, all of the above has happened to me at work. It can be incredibly frustrating and I often feel like I am not being heard. I genuinely like my co-workers, but have to bite my tongue when things don't get done or my instructions/suggestions seem to go ignored. A simple yes or no would suffice - but my direct way of doing things doesn't seem to go over too well.

Aug 10, 2013 22:12

Realize that you will be victimized for being a “foreigner.”

Oct 27, 2015 05:38

important things to consider in entirely military-bound societies.

Oct 27, 2015 05:38

You will be blamed for everything

Oct 27, 2015 05:39

you are always the subordinate; actually, anything non-Han is subhuman

Oct 27, 2015 05:42

Wow. . .#3 tells people to be a spineless fall guy. #4 tells you incompetence is good.

May 03, 2017 20:26

I don't like this article... I think the best solution is to simply leave. There is no reason why anyone should HAVE to sell themselves short (especially if they morally in the right) to have to put up with this crap to get through life.

May 04, 2017 13:00

I first went to China to work back in the late 80s. Culture shock was indeed a real problem. But the world has changed a lot in the last quarter of a century. The Internet is a real lifesaver when it comes to culture shock and homesickness. If you need an escape, get online. Skype some friends. Take a trip on Google Earth and visit your old hood. Watch a movie. Really, in this day and age, there is no reason to let being a foreigner either in China or elsewhere get you down.

May 08, 2017 04:40

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