A Cheat Sheet for Trump (and You) on Communicating With the Chinese

Donald Trump had his first face-to-face discussion with a member of Chinese leadership on Monday, and this looks like a ramp up to an eventual meeting with President Xi Jinping. And from an economic standpoint, the stakes couldn’t be higher. China is the biggest trade partner for the United States, accounting for 16% of all trade. They are a major export market for our goods; they own some of our biggest companies.

I’ve spent the last several years studying how people can communicate across cultures and act outside their comfort zones. And here’s what I’ve learned about typical Chinese communication style.

Tip 1. Chinese tend to be quite indirect in their communication style.

Generally speaking, Chinese are quite indirect with their communication style, preferring to hint at something and allow the listener to “connect the dots,” rather than communicate the message directly. In China, maintaining social harmony within the group is much more important than catering to individual needs. Thus, to the extent that communicating something directly calls attention to the self (at the expense of the group), it is discouraged. Additionally, direct communication can often be “face threatening” – that is, it can put someone in an awkward or uncomfortable social position, which can lead to shame or embarrassment. Thus, to avoid these threats to a person’s face, or social image, Chinese will often communicate messages indirectly – which of course can sometimes be tricky for a Westerner to interpret.

Tip 2: The level of indirectness depends on power relationship, company type, and generation.

Because of the hierarchical nature of Chinese society, the rule of indirectness does not necessarily apply across the board. For example, superiors are typically quite direct when communicating with subordinates. Also, company type also matters a great deal in China. State-owned enterprises are more traditional in their communication style than Western (or non Chinese)-owned companies, and would therefore tend to have a more indirect communication style. Finally, some of the younger generation of Chinese, many of whom have been schooled in the West, have adopted Western practices and operate with a more direct communication style.

Tip 3: Chinese tend to be modest and composed (rather than overtly emotionally expressive) in their communication style.

Modesty, self-control, and reserve are key values in Chinese culture and displaying too much outward enthusiasm, especially in front of a boss, can be seen as “showing off”, which is not condoned. That said, Chinese do tend to express more emotion over time as they get to know a person, and the younger generation tends to be more comfortable with emotional expressiveness than the previous generation. This is due in part from the belief that expressing thoughts and feelings can result in a more efficient workplace.

Tip 4: Chinese aren’t self-promoters (or at least in the way that Americans would self-promote).

Chinese tend to be more self-deprecating than self-promotional, preferring to call more attention to their faults than to their positive characteristics. When Chinese do call attention to their accomplishments, they do so quite indirectly. A Chinese subordinate interested in a promotion might send subtle signals regarding her positive qualities, hoping that the superior will pick up on the message. Chinese also work hard behind the scenes to cultivate allies and contacts who can engage in self-promotion on their behalf, and therefore avoid the face-threatening experience of having to do it themselves. As is the case with the other characteristics of the cultural code, the younger generation in China (especially those with experience working and studying in the US) is also becoming increasingly more comfortable with self-promotion.

Tip 5: Chinese tend to be more formal than you might think in their communication style.

Generally speaking, China has a quite formal business culture. This manifests itself in a number of ways. First, titles are very important in China. If you are the chairman of the company, you are referred to as “Chairman Jones.” If you are the general manager, you are referred to as “General Manager Jones” and so on. If you are a subordinate and are interested in speaking with someone above you in the hierarchy, you cannot go knock on the door for a chat. Instead, you need to go through very specific channels. Rituals are also quite important in Chinese business culture. The exchange of business cards, for example, happens quite formally and ritualistically, like in Japan, where a person is expected to receive the business card with two hands, spend a respectable amount of time viewing the card, and then putting it down on the table, as opposed to in one’s pocket.

Tip 6: Chinese often will be quite guarded with personal information… that is, until you’re in the “in group.”

Personal disclosure in China depends a great deal on the relationship. Chinese can be quite guarded and protective with personal information among people they do not know well – especially people they perceive themselves to be in competition with for limited resources. The logic is that if people reveal personal information, it could be used against them in some way and lead to a strategic disadvantage. This changes significantly, however, once a strong, trusting relationship is forged. When you have been accepted into the “in group,” Chinese will be extremely forthcoming and personally expressive.

This quick cheat sheet of course only hits the tip of the iceberg about Chinese culture. China is a huge (yuge) country with so much diversity across region, generation, functional culture, organizational culture and so on. But it’s at least a start, and hopefully it can be an effective tool for navigating cultural differences – among nations and in our everyday lives.


Originally published on Inc.com

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