Speaking to other people is just the worst. And it gets even more difficult when you have to speak to someone in their, or your, second language. Anyone who has worked longer than a minute in China has seen a coworker blankly nod when asked something, completely misunderstanding the point but unwilling to admit their English has holes. You’re probably also guilty of doing the same yourself when the shoe is on the other foot. While this can lead to hilarious misunderstandings, it can also result in frustrating professional setbacks. To help you in your quest for a less hilarious but also less frustrating working life, here are five tips for smoother communication in the Chinese workplace.
This one may seem obvious, but many expats new to China forget to modify their language and speed of talking when engaging with Chinese colleagues. When you speak with your Chinese coworkers, avoid contractions, idioms, slang, obscure cultural references, and generally talking like you would to your friends in a bar.
Contractions: It is → It’s
Idioms: It’s raining cats and dogs
Slang: I’m gonna get goin’ to that pain in the ass powwow
Cultural references: We need to avoid groupthink
Obviously some of the language above should not be used in any professional setting, but less extreme and equally confusing phrases can creep in to conversations with coworkers if you’re not careful. Remember that Chinese language education still heavily focuses on rote memorization, grammar, and literal phrases, meaning that your coworkers may have poorer speaking and listening skills than they let on. It takes a little mindfulness at first, but you’ll soon find speaking literally, simply, and slowly fosters smoother communication in the Chinese workplace.
As alluded to above, a Chinese person’s reading and grammar skills are often their greatest English assets. This means written communication in the form of emails and texts will typically be easier for your colleagues to understand and answer. They will also be able to use computer translation programs to fill in any gaps. If possible/appropriate, you could even draw diagrams to get your point across.
Submitting all of your important requests and questions in writing will enhance communication between yourself and your Chinese colleagues while providing the all-important paper trail. If a problem arises later and it’s not clear who’s at fault, at least you have clear documentation of your exchanges.
One of the reasons we use cultural references and historical allusions in language is that they often draw on shared knowledge to quickly communicate complex ideas. Learning more about Chinese culture, history, and the commonality between the idioms of your two countries can help you get your point across to a coworker, even if you’re speaking completely in English.
Some English phrases have made their way into Chinese and vice-versa, such as “All roads lead to Rome” and “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” Making an effort to learn a few of the common idioms familiar to both Chinese and English speakers can expedite communication in the workplace and make coworkers better-disposed towards you in general.
Not all miscommunication in the Chinese workplace is the result of language barriers. In my experience at least, Chinese workplaces tend to be a lot less politically correct than their Western counterparts. During my time working in China, I’ve found that commenting on someone’s appearance is not considered rude or taboo, and that workplaces are much more tolerant of sexist and “un-woke” conduct that would result in a firing and a possible media firestorm in the States. I have personally seen:
1.Chinese male coworkers yell out comments about a female coworker’s body while she was making a speech
2. A woman summarize her recent vacation with the phrase: “Thailand, home of the trannies…”
3. My male coworker refer to my female coworker’s chest as “flat as a board”
From what I can tell, no-one was particularly shocked or offended by these comments. Whether you agree with this attitude or not, keeping in mind that there is a different code of social norms in China (and trying to curb your outrage accordingly) could mitigate workplace conflicts before they begin.
Many people throw around the phrase “culture shock” when talking about working in China, but few really grasp how subtly it can manifest. I view culture shock as anger or surprise over broken rules the other person didn’t know existed. One common linguistic example is the difference in the use of the words “please” and “thank you” in Chinese and English.
Most English speakers are taught from an early age that please should be added to virtually every request, usually followed by a thank you for good measure. You might, therefore, be surprised when a Chinese coworker says something like, “Sit down and type your password.”
Your first instinct may be to yell “You aren’t the boss of me!” and flip over a table. But you have to keep in mind that in Chinese, the equivalent words for please and thank you are not used nearly as liberally. Simple requests where the listener isn’t doing anything very taxing translates into English as a direct command, without any presumption of superiority or offense intended. Many of your Chinese coworkers will be translating Chinese to English directly in their heads without the filter of cultural propriety.
You can, therefore, avoid misunderstandings in the Chinese workplace by taking some of the blunt things your colleagues say with a grain of salt. Give them the benefit of the doubt when they say something that would be considered rude back home.
Any other tips for smoother communication in the Chinese workplace? Drop them in the comments box below.
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Keywords: communication in the Chinese workplace
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Point 4 - you should NOT 'tolerate' sexism / racism of any sort just becasue it is the 'cultural norm' in China. Just because people don't speak up about it does not mean it is acceptable or should be allowed to continue. Privately many Chinese women don't like sexist remarks and behaviour, but are afraid to speak up as they think/know it will impact their career. Being silent on these is a way of condoning this. If you speak up, you are more likely to reduce this in the future and make a positive change - any women you work with would probably have a better impression of you if you didn't just roll-over on this and let sexist remarks/behaviour pass.
Jun 03, 2020 15:43 Report Abuse
100% yes to this! One of the perks of being a foreigner is that we have the freedom to deviate from many Chinese cultural norms. This means that we are uniquely able to challenge predjudiced behaviour in the workplace without facing the same backlash that a Chinese person would. The trick is to find a way to stay respectful and polite whilst calling out stuff that needs to be called out....
Aug 11, 2020 15:01 Report Abuse
apparently there are some people who like sexism/racism is the workplace - hence the down-votes. My interaction with Chinese people (in fact everyone) is always polite and respectful, however often i do not get that in return. and sometimes you have to be blunt, when politeness/respect has been ignored over and over again......
Aug 12, 2020 16:38 Report Abuse