‘Reading between the lines’ in China

‘Yes’ is a very common word in China – and a word with many meanings. “Yes, I think we can deliver” is a statement from a manufacturer that requires verification. The truth about the meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is one of the many ‘need-to-knows’ for entrepreneurs entering the Chinese market, says Sinologist and author Ardi Bouwers.

Bouwers wrote a book on the difference in styles of communication in China and in the West. In one of the chapters, the author explains the experiences of a seasoned fashion designer who is looking for a manufacturer who can produce her collection. The answer to her inquiry about the ability of the factory workers to apply a certain stitching technique, was a clear ‘yes’. The answer ‘far from it’ would have been more accurate. Fortunately, the fashion designer was aware of the communication issues surrounding the ‘yes’. She trusted her gut feeling, asked for samples and invested time and patience until the manufacturer got it right. A great example how to bridge two worlds of communication.

Yes can be no

Bouwers, who teaches at Amsterdam University College and runs her own business consultancy firm China Circle: “A yes can be a no and the other way around. This is a great example of something a business traveller should know before entering the Chinese business arena. He or she should be aware of the indirect ways of communication that can be part of interaction.”
In her book – Cirkels en Rechte Lijnen (English: ‘Circles and Straight Lines’) unfortunately only available in Dutch up to now – Ardi Bouwers elucidates a great number of matters like these. She discusses the complicated ‘dance’ around the subject of who is picking up the bill in private and business dinners. She covers topics like ‘white lies’, trust and distrust, the virtues of modesty, and why confronting Chinese with your dissatisfaction can be a difficult task.

Negotiating the aircraft carrier deal

Bouwers compiled some wonderful examples of negotiating ‘China-style’, like the one about how an ex-basketball player managed to buy an aircraft carrier from a Ukrainian harbour. Bouwers shares insights about the ‘bro code’, about bribes and corruption and guanxi, about hierarchy in Chinese organisations and about the (lack of) privacy in Chinese organisations.

The book also includes interesting chapters about Chinese heroes – from Jack Ma to Li Na and Fan Bingbing – (Bouwers: “Knowing about their heroes helps you understand the Chinese”) and about how the life of the modern Chinese is dominated by social media like WeChat. The book also offers the theoretical base behind many of the soft and hard truths of the Chinese ways of communication. Ardi Bouwers: "I wanted to go beyond the anecdotal level as there are so many stories and opinions circulating about China. The theories of culture and communication illustrate beautifully how far the western and Chinese communication are apart. For me, realising this worked as an eye opener. It gave me a better understanding of the importance of hierarchy and of the ‘white lie’ as way to prevent offending the other.”

What message do you want to bring across with the book?

“Communicating with people from other cultures requires openness and curiosity. One should occasionally look in the mirror and ask what effect one’s behaviour has on the other. Authentic Western behaviour is acceptable if you can explain why. Do not be afraid to ask questions if you do not understand things. It is important that a leader behaves like a leader. Do not act too informal. If you as a manager require continuous input of your Chinese employees, this will be seen as a sign of weakness.”
Another message seems to be that, to operate successfully in China, one must develop the skill over ‘reading between the lines’?
"Communication is not only about words but also about silence. It is about choosing the right restaurant to entertain guests. Westerners value direct and concise communication, in China it is diplomatic behaviour and decorum that counts. The prototypical blunt and rude Westerner will give the wrong signals often. My advice: do not judge too quickly and don’t get annoyed too easily by vague or evasive answers. "

In a nutshell – listening and observing are part of the ‘standard equipment’ to bring on a business trip?

“Quite right. And don’t forget empathy. Immerse yourself in the world of China before boarding the plane. China will not be strange any more, but interesting. Ask questions and you will find that Chinese love to answer them. Get to know the other party, find out what you can offer each other. A clear shared interest is often the basis for good cooperation between different cultures.”

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