In Part I of our article series on improving communication with your Chinese trading partners we talked about the value Chinese people place on the network that each person brings into a relationship, as well as the desire for the relationship to work well. We discussed ways for business people to convey a sense of their network during discussions, and to signal partnership building. In Part II of our series, we will talk about how the Chinese view themselves in society, and how that impacts the way that they will deal with you.

The group is more important than the individual

In Chinese society the individual is subservient to the group. Chinese people tend to write the character for the pronoun 'I' smaller than other characters. They also tend to refer to themselves as part of the group, rather than as an individual. Since you are likely to be dealing with just one person from the supplier or manufacturers side, this issue is less important than if your team was working with a Chinese team, but you can still use this information to strengthen your relationship and build the kind of trust that can help to ensure that your Chinese partner honors your relationship enough to provide the service that you want.

Suggestions for reinforcing partnership

  • Use language that reinforces your working relationship, such as 'If you and I can work together successfully we will help both of our companies to be successful.'
  • Recognise the skills or experience of your supplier, without singling out one individual. For example: 'I can see that you and your company have a good understanding of this new technology.'

These approaches are subtle, but can be an effective way to build the all-important trusting relationship that is key to working well with many Chinese people.

The issue of 'face'

In Chinese society face is absolutely critical. Face, or mianzi mee-yan zee, can be defined as the expression of a person's pride and ability. Sources of face can include education, socio-economic status, the number of male children, and so on. Protection of face is very important. There are many ways to lose face, such as: any sort of even minor public humiliation, receiving or giving any direct reply to a query in the negative, the slightest appearance of incompetence or lack of understanding. It is also possible to give face by complimenting actions or abilities, especially to others.

Solving problems

Problem solving can be touchy in China because there is a loss of face associated with admitting to a problem that needs to be solved. The Chinese are much more likely to work around a problem than to deal with it directly. This can be pretty troublesome when you have a problem and need your Chinese supplier to fix it. It is sometimes the reason that your Chinese supplier will assure you that something is right when it is wrong. Certainly this is not helpful, and you can not accept poor products or slow delivery in order to allow your supplier to save face. However, if you understand that it is an issue of pride rather than the desire to cheat you, it may be easier to find solutions.

Suggestions for face-saving communication and problem solving

  • If you have more than one person on the phone, do not directly criticise one person in front of the others; you will damage your relationship and be far less likely to get what you need.
  • li> If for example your issue is product quality, you may improve the opportunity for resolution by saying 'The last shipment of leather goods did not represent your usual excellent quality. I need your help to get the excellent quality products that I know you usually supply.' Even though this approach seems like soft peddling, it is worth starting in this way to accelerate problem resolution.
  • Assume the honor of your relationship in your problem solving conversation. For example: 'Our relationship is very important to me; I rely on you to supply my business and I know you will be able to help me out.'

You may recoil a bit from these examples thinking that they would make you sound weak or too willing to let your supplier off the hook for a mistake. Remember that you can still take any action that you need to take. The message here is that, if you begin your problem solving discussion with a sensitivity to the Chinese point of view, you may be more successful than if you get on the phone, call your supplier a cheat and demand restitution.

When yes is no

In western culture business people are expected to be direct. If the answer to a request is no, that's the communication that needs to occur. In Chinese society saying no to a request is perceived to be antithetical to relationship building, and consequently becomes a matter of losing face. In order to preserve face, Chinese people almost never answer directly in the negative. In doing so they also believe that they are preserving your face which would be damaged by being refused, even if you do not think so. In fact there is no word for no in the Chinese language. If you ask someone if they are hungry they could not simply say no, they would answer not hungry. It is helpful to be able to recognise when yes might mean no in your communications.

Dealing with the yes or no problem

  • If you receive a communication where you have asked something, and received an affirmative answer, be sure you explore the response carefully to discover whether the affirmative is Yes I will do what you have asked, or yes I understand that you asked me to do something but I have not agreed to do it, or yes I understand the request but I still have not agreed to do it.
  • When you receive a communication that refers to the difficulties with complying with a request and that includes words such as maybe or perhaps, recognise that you are probably hearing no.
  • When you ask a question, provide possible responses such as I need 1000 pieces shipped by September 1st. Will you be able to ship 1000 pieces by Sep 1st or would such an order be shipped after September 1st? Sounds complicated but you are more likely to get the information you need.

In Part III of our series about communication with Chinese trading partners we will explore more ways that the structure of the Chinese language can create communication problems, and give you tips for avoiding misunderstandings. We will also discuss why knowledge of hierarchy is important in your dealings with Chinese suppliers.