The Challenges of Starting a Business in China – Part 5 (Getting to know the Chinese Business Culture)
In the past, I have written about my experience of opening a business in China, and at this point I have learned a good deal about Chinese culture. Below I’ve outlined some different observations I’ve made during the process.
The language barrier when you’re working with people in China should not be underestimated. One thing I found out from traveling back and forth between America and China so many times is the differences in communication styles. You may find you can communicate well with people while in China, but when sending and receiving emails with the same people, communication starts to get more complicated. While many Chinese people can hold a conversation face-to-face, their reading and writing might not be as strong. I found myself reading emails a dozen times just to guess what I thought they were trying to express. If unsuccessful I would have to email back to ask for clarification and the time zone difference would require another 24 hours before getting further explanation. Phone calls are difficult also because the call quality is not perfect and you can’t read body language or expressions when communicating over the phone. Using Skype to have conversations works better, but the inconsistent quality and call drops are frequent.
Being someone that only speaks one language I find it hard to comprehend the mechanics and thought process that takes place for someone that speaks more than one language. When talking to Chinese people I found myself putting a filter on my thoughts and the words. It was easier to simplify more complex words or slang to help get my point across. Spending time with many Chinese people I learned several things about the English language as well and how it can be very confusing. For example, take a simple word like “too”. Younger Chinese professionals learned English in school and although they can speak pretty well they might not have had a lot of time conversing with native English speaking people. The definition for “too” that Chinese primarily learn is as follows: To a higher degree than is desirable. When using the word “too” in America it’s commonly used as a synonym for ‘also’. Additionally I often say something is ‘too good’ or was too quick to indicate something better than I expected, but Chinese people are thinking the level of good or the speed of service was “too” much and needs to be reduced in the future. I had a Chinese person ask me, how you know when “too” is positive as opposed to negative. This question caught me by surprise, but after thinking about it I couldn’t come up with any simple rule to help answer the question. This comes from experience, and without going over every example I couldn’t really offer a solution. The best I could do is if someone is smiling while saying it, then it’s positive.
As with a sarcastic sense of humor I quickly realized that even this would not be received in the same manner as it is in the U.S. If you tend to be sarcastic like me I recommend taking special care to limit the facetious remarks along with any slang, buzzwords, or other out of the ordinary words that could cause confusion, and possibly anger, from the other party. I also found if I used words that Chinese people didn’t understand, normally they would not ask for clarification. Their general stance is that they don’t want to sound unintelligent so they will try to guess the meaning of the word based on the context rather than asking. Often they will simply think they know the definition of the world and won’t even question it, and only later would I realize that something I said was not understood.
In my opinion it’s near impossible to complete the business registration process without multiple trips to China to meet in person and discuss different topics in detail. The language gap and time zone differences made it too challenging to try to complete the detailed tasks necessary from different sides of the world.
As a foreign company doing business in China we quickly realized how valuable it was to establish relationships with local Chinese people to help us with the process. Whether you start from the U.S. embassy or hire a firm to help, there will have to be a native Chinese speaking person to help with communication and many other things you'd be lost without. In my own experience as I started to communicate with 20 or so businesses in China I found very quickly that I was asked for my local contact’s information regardless of whether the individual knew who my contact was. It was simply assumed we had one though we hadn’t officially hired anyone yet. Although Chinese people enjoy working with westerners they like to have that local contact's information so they can communicate in Chinese. I personally couldn’t give out my Chinese connection’s contact information so I had to dodge this question many times.
When doing business in China be prepared to get answers that don’t make any sense. Business in the United States can seem a bit sluggish and confusing sometimes, but China takes this to the next level. If you are like me and have to ask ‘why?’ about everything, this can be hard to handle. Expect to hear “This is China” or “Just because” as a common answer to a lot of your questions. The Chinese people seem to be very accepting of answers regardless of sound logic. One situation that illustrates this point perfectly is when I had some money transferred from America to my Chinese bank account. The money that entered my account was still in USD but I needed to get it converted to RMB so I could pay some vendors. The online access webpage for the bank had a button located next to the dollar amount that said “Convert to RMB”:
Whenever I would click on the link I would get an error that the transaction was not supported:
After messing around with it by myself for several hours and trying to look through Chinese help documentation, I found nothing that provided an explanation for how to use the feature. I had my Chinese contact visit the bank to see what was going on. After spending over an hour at the bank and talking to the bank manager the final answer was that the button was added to see how many people would click it, even though it doesn’t do anything. I was absolutely dumbfounded, and still can’t believe this answer today. It seems like everywhere people just give answers that require the least amount of effort. Just saying the button doesn’t do anything was apparently preferable to actually looking into the issue.
It seems that the more time I spend in China the better I am learning how to handle each situation. Some of them can be very frustrating and foreign, and the best advice I can give is to be patient. The more you can go with the flow the easier the entire process will be. Oh, and always expect the unexpected!