China Journal #4: When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes
In China, nothing is as it first appears. Centuries-old culture overshadows even the most modern of topics. Max Artz, Plant Manager at The Aroma Therapy Company in Shanghai, told me over dinner in his city: “In the Chinese business environment, yes doesn’t mean yes, but more like keep going until something else suits me better.” From all our speakers, both indigenous and foreign, we got the sense that the basic Western orientation towards business doesn’t work in China. In the US, for example, we do business first, and then make friends of our associates over time. For eons, the Chinese have built trust socially, and then looked for business opportunities later. Add in the ever-present sense of social hierarchy, and Chinese communication becomes very complex.
We witnessed that first-hand by brokering influence through the giving of traditional small gifts to our hosts, showing respect and building prestige through social capital. Since there are so many countries doing business in China (like the Germans bringing in Bayer Material Sciences), the default business language is English. That doesn’t always go over so well—as English miscommunication even on local signs can be exacerbated by accidental or careless translations.
Mistakes happen in all languages and all cultures, of course, but the Chinese are unique in their pursuit of goals without worrying about the subtleties of pinpoint messaging. Government communications are powerful and clear, but open to endless interpretation, depending on who you are. Then there is the Communist Party, which keeps a tight control on communications. My colleagues and I experienced varying degrees of difficulty in sending or receiving certain digital content outside of China. Some emails were blocked, attachments were stripped away, text messages bounced, and even international television shows went black for short periods.
At one point on my trip, I saw a Wall Street Journal headline on my smartphone about an October 29th fire in Tiananmen Square possibly involving Muslim Uighurs. At the time, I could not click through to the actual article to read more. There was seemingly no local news about the incident either. It seems that censors blocked this story from the public. It was only upon my return to the U.S. that I could successfully click on that link and read the full story about five deaths and 38 injured in the fire.
It made me wonder what else I missed while I was in the country. It’s also been reported that there are discrepancies between the smog indicators (parts per million) published by the American embassy and those released by the Chinese government—though no one knows which source is more accurate.
All of these Chinese communication barriers add a layer of challenges to doing business in China that makes it imperative for foreigners to listen closely to what is—and isn’t—being communicated.