Anyone who has had any experience of doing business in Asia will tell you that, despite common perceptions and assumptions, the greatest communication challenge is not usually caused by language differences. Whilst of course you are always going to have a big advantage if you speak the local language, the biggest challenges and problems usually arise from the fact that westerners can generally be described as having a “direct” communication style, whilst Asians are more “indirect”.
Like all generalisations, you should be careful about how you interpret this. I remember when I first moved to Asia in the late 1980s it took me a long time to work out how to communicate with my father’s willing and friendly Amah (housekeeper) Ah Ping, because I was not used to giving instructions and directions in an Asian context. Our interactions, which usually began with me saying “would it be OK if I asked you to…” or “I wonder if you would be so kind as to…” would have been hilarious to anyone watching because, despite speaking good English herself, she had absolutely no idea what I was asking her to do (or not do!).
And, whilst my intentions were always pure, it would be unfair to suggest that westerners can always be relied on to speak directly and truthfully. The phrases “speaking with a forked tongue”, “being economical with the truth” and, more recently, “presenting alternative facts” have all been used to describe situations when the truth has been deliberately obscured or hidden during the communication process. None of this leads to effective communication or the development of long term trust and confidence on both sides.
However, as a general rule, and certainly in modern times, the western business world usually adopts a somewhat “direct” style of communication. Calling a “spade a spade” or the strange saying “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck” are examples from the common vernacular of how westerners are encouraged to say it the way it is, and to speak their mind openly and directly. The English language (and its derivations) includes the words “Yes” and “No” to encourage direct communication, and businesses (often with the support of their lawyers) usually rely on the use and choice of words to make business decisions which, in practice, causes all kinds of problems when things go wrong.
I think my Chinese friends will forgive me for saying that, as a general rule, Chinese people don’t like using the word “No”, particularly to foreigners. They usually answer most questions with the word “Yes” which can convey many messages, including “I heard you”, “I need to ask my boss”, “Probably not” or in some cases even “Definitely not”. This can cause many problems in a business transaction or interaction when words are being relied on for decision-making or to simply convey meaning and action.
One of the many cross-cultural issues here is that the Chinese language doesn’t really include options to use such direct words as “Yes” and “No”. A question in Chinese will often end with “can or cannot?” or “true or not true?” or “have or have not?” which allows the other party to use words other than “Yes” or “No” to answer it. And in an effort to please, and certainly not disappoint, foreigners, Chinese people often prefer to say “Yes”, and figure out later how to make good on their promise, rather than to sound impolite by saying “No”. In fact, even I myself can be guilty of this!
So, when doing business in Asia, I usually recommend to our clients that they develop skills in asking “Open Questions”. These are usually questions that start with “Why?”, “How?”, “When?”, “What?”, or “Where?” which can’t easily be answered with a simple “Yes” (or “No”). Open Questions have the following characteristics:
They require the respondent to think and reflect.
They enable you to tease out the other person’s opinions and feelings.
They hand control of the conversation to the other side and give you a much better idea of what will happen next.
How do you plan to complete that task?
When do you expect the goods to be ready?
What will you require from me to get the job done?
This might be a good time to re-learn the lost art of answering Open Questions if you regularly communicate with Asian clients, clients, suppliers or even friends.
As George Bernard Shaw once put it “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” and this problem is exacerbated when you communicate across cultures and to someone whose first language is different to your own.
From my experience, language is often the least of our problems when dealing between cultures as we find ourselves grappling to understand how the timing, wording or emphasis of a particular message can make a huge difference between either delighting, disappointing or even offending the recipient, or anything in between. Effective communication is an art, not a science, and there’s no doubt that we can, and must, all get better at it if we hope to succeed and prosper in the Asian Century!