Effective communication requires engagement from both ends of the communication cycle—both the ability to send a message and receive feedback from your audience. Using this cycle to reach a common understanding is more of an art than a science—even when we communicate with others from our home culture. However, it is even more challenging when communicating cross-culturally in China.
A key communications difference is the Chinese emphasis on maintaining a good relationship, which generally comes across through indirect communications where messages are communicated more subtly. However, typical American communications focuses on details and efficiency in a style that is more direct. In my experience, adjusting to the Chinese communication style is more effective than forcing Chinese friends or colleagues to adjust to the American default. This adjustment may honestly feel like a waste of time as it means personal interactions may take longer, but is a critical way to build relationships of trust with Chinese connections.
One Tip: The Rule of Three
A practice that helped my interaction with Chinese friends and colleagues is the rule of three – asking about the same topic three different times in three different ways”. I first learned of this concept through an invaluable class called “Connecting across Cultures” from Global Savvyand it has proved to be an invaluable practice.
Case in Point: Lunch Plans
In question— arranging lunch with a group of coworkers.
In America this question is typically resolved in short order through a direct dialogue centered around everyone’s availability. If your colleagues, aren’t available, you identify a time when everyone is available in the near future and update calendars accordingly. However, while living in China over 8 years I discovered this question was not so simple.
A Typical Lunch Dialogue in China
Step 1 (10 am): A general question followed by a vague answer
Question – “Hey, what’s the plan for lunch today?”
Answer – “I don’t know.”
Follow Up – “Ok. Well, keep me posted.”
Step 2 (11 am): A more specific question followed by a still murky answer
Question – “So about what time are you thinking about going to lunch today?”
Answer – “Probably before 12.”
Follow Up – “Got it. I’ll check back in a bit.
Step 3 (11:45 am): An even more specific question followed by going to lunch.
Question – “So where are we going for lunch?
Answer – “Either the Sichuan place or the spicy fish place.”
Follow Up – “Great. Either works for me. Let’s go!”
In the end, we may go to a completely different restaurant! However, when lunch involved a group, the communication was indirect and required me to ask at least two times before arriving at a clear answer. This does not mean that Chinese people always communicate in an indirect fashion, but in social activities for a group indirect communication is the default. Adjusting to this style was difficult, especially because such indirect communication is not the default for most people in America.
Broader Applications at Work
While this post has focused on a lunch dialogue, I also found the rule of three helpful when discussing projects at work. If I simply asked a direct question, I may have received a prompt reply, but the feedback either created inaccurate perceptions or misunderstandings. If we dig deeper into the source of these communication differences it comes back to the way the Chinese person views relationships. In the next post, we will explore in more depth the major differences on how these two cultures view relationships.