In part II of our three part series on communicating with Chinese trading partners, we talked about the problems of face in Chinese society, and the tricky issue of the Chinese desire to avoid saying no. In this article we'll talk a bit more about position and face, then explore how the structure of the Chinese language complicates communication. We'll finish up with easy to do tips for improving your interactions with your Chinese trading partners.

The power of position

Hierarchy is very important to the Chinese, whether in business, social or family settings. People in positions of authority are given the respect associated with their position. In families, hierarchy is so important that family members are sometimes addressed by family position such as eldest son or youngest daughter, rather than by name.

In Chinese culture, the boss is always treated with deference and respect By contrast, in many western companies, the boss is referred to by his or her first name, often works in the group as a team member rather than as the recognized authority and might engage in ironic humor as a way to break down barriers. If you or your staff were to treat a Chinese authority figure this way, it would be seen as an embarrassing lack of respect and everyone, including you, would lose face.

Suggestions for managing authority and hierarchy

  • Know the hierarchy within your supplierís company. Be sure you know titles and how people relate to one another within the organization.
  • Respect the hierarchy by addressing the senior person first, listing the senior person first on email or other correspondence and using a formal manner of address when appropriate.
  • Keep your general working relationship more formal than casual until you find your Chinese counterpart becoming more casual.

Once again, these actions are subtle but powerful in building the right relationship.


Communicating well when not everyone is a native speaker of the language in use is often an invitation to confusion. When youíre dealing with people whose first language is Chinese, those communication issues can be even more problematic, especially since many people who speak English tend to use a lot of metaphor, slang and casual grammar that really makes it difficult to be understood.

The Chinese language does not (generally) contain tenses or pronoun matching. So, the word (in pinyin, a system for writing Chinese words using the alphabet rather than Chinese characters), shi can mean am, is, are and also was or will be, etc. Time frame is determined by the use of time words such as yesterday or tomorrow or by context, when I was a child. Imagine the difficulty a native Chinese speaker faces when confronted with the variety of tenses in the English language. Consequently, it is very easy for a native Chinese speaker to confuse time frames when speaking or writing.

Chinese grammar is very simple in comparison to American grammar and sentence structure. For example, English sentences that place subject and verb in unusual positions can be very confusing.

Also, because English is a mix of both Germanic and Romance languages, it has an enormous number of words to describe a thing or an action. It can be very difficult for the Chinese native speaker to have enough command of the language to understand or interpret subtle differences in words such as placed and put or pretty and lovely. To put (or place?) the problem into perspective, a company called Global Language Monitor estimates that there are about a million words in the English language; a new word is created every 98 minutes. (Surprised? Think blogerrati, Obamamania, and bankster.) The average person gets along with five to ten thousand words and that number climbs upward with level of education. By contrast, there are approximately 50,000 Chinese characters; you need to know about 3,000 to manage day-to-day.

Americans frequently use sports or military metaphors in their speech and writing and new slang arrives on the scene all the time. Whatís the game plan? or hit the ground running are incredibly confusing to any non-native speaker. Same with ĎBrits who are having a row with a spouse, or a blooming good time or a one off sale. It may also be difficult for a native Chinese speaker to follow a verbal conversation via the telephone, particularly if there is any disturbance on the line or people speak too quickly.

Often, when a Chinese person does not understand something said or written in English, he or she feels inadequate and in danger of losing face. Consequently, it is very possible that the person will not ask for clarification because to do so would be admitting a weakness. This tendency can have disastrous consequences.

Dealing with language problems

  • When you are dealing with time frames, use dates and times to increase clarity.
  • Use simple sentence construction.
  • If you plan to disseminate, distribute, circulate, supply or provide materials, use provide, itís simplest and unlike the other simple word, supply, it does not also act as a noun.
  • Donít use slang and fractured grammar. Casual creates bonds in western circles but confuses your Chinese counterparts.
  • When there is a special vocabulary in use, take the time to be sure that the technical terms have been defined well enough to assure that people on both sides use the same words in the same way.
  • Check for comprehension without suggesting that your Chinese counterpart is not up to speed. Instead of saying or writing, Do you understand? ask, Have I described the situation clearly or is there something I need to add to be of help?
  • Always follow up a telephone conversation with a written summary of the content, including agreed upon actions and time frames.

We hope our article series has given you both insight into the Chinese culture and practical advice for establishing a successful relationship with your Chinese trading partner.