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One Tip for Effective Communication in China

The Rule of Three

From the series Communicating Cross-Culturally

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.

Communications Cycle

Image Source: Living Well Education

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 Savvy and it has proved to be an invaluable practice.

Image Source: Germane Consulting

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.

Image credit: PMA Fresh Connections China 2015 by Produce Marketing Association via Flickr.
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Joab Meyer

Joab Meyer

Joab Meyer has been studying Chinese language and culture for nearly 20 years and lived in Shanghai for seven years. He is passionate about the knowledge of Chinese culture being effectively applied in developing healthy communities and companies in the fast-changing China market. To that end, he has published China-related …View Full Bio

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