November / December 2013: Publisher’s Letter: Doing business with China and the cultural debate

Understanding the social and business cultures of both countries is essential in negotiating business between Australia and China, writes Carl Jetter.

As Australia’s and in my case, Victoria’s business activities with China are ever more increasing, so are the forums, debates and discussions about ‘Chinese culture.’

At times there seems to be almost a sense of paranoia about ‘having to understand Chinese culture’. In my opinion, a country’s culture is an extension of ‘a people’s behaviour, traditions, history – and language’. ‘Culture’ is therefore the people we talk to and deal with.

Broadly speaking, the character of the Chinese people can be quite complex, as can be the many aspects of Chinese culture. I believe the starting point relating to understanding Chinese culture should be “to learn, understand and tolerate the Chinese people”, which I don’t hear stated often enough. That certainly includes the need to learn of the various, and often important, differences between us, which requires us to look at our own cultural behaviours as well.

Unfortunately, that seems to be largely missing in the many discussions about Chinese culture. I cringe when I hear an Aussie ask “Why do they do things that way”, which to me is a connotation of “Why don’t they do things our way”. It seems to me a stark contrast to the Chinese questioning, which more often than not, “I want to learn the way you do it.”

The best and true way to learn to understand Chinese culture is to learn the Chinese language. I understand and appreciate that this is not practical for all of us wanting to do business with China, nor is it possible for all Chinese to learn English when dealing with Australians. On the other hand, the ability to communicate with each other is not emphasised enough when discussing Chinese culture. Personally, not speaking Mandarin, I envy all Aussies who have made the wise decision to study the language, as this is the most valuable aspect in understanding Chinese culture and doing business with Chinese people. And it is equally important to acknowledge the ever increasing number of English speaking Chinese, especially amongst the younger generation.

Nevertheless, in most average business discussions between Australians and Chinese, the communication will rely on having interpreters, often with limited English skills, and or communicating with Chinese business people and their own limited language skills. An all too often common situation is when both parties agree, but don’t understand each other.

Why? Because Chinese, including their interpreters, will say “yes” to be polite, and that “yes” should be understand as “I hear what you are saying”, and not necessarily “I understand or I agree”.

Australians, at the same time, add to the difficulties, because they speak their normal home speed rather than making an effort to slow down, and preferably should simplify their English terminology to bring it down to the level of the Chinese people one is dealing with. There are many good books and articles written about understanding Chinese culture and the discussions need to continue. On balance, Chinese people are learning English in much greater numbers than we learn Chinese, and granted, it’s not an easy language to learn, but it will go a long way when doing business with China.

In this issue, we feature the winners of this years ACAA / IELTS Australia China Alumni Awards. These fantastic awards yet again showcase the exceptional careers of Australian alumni in China – including the many Chinese who undertake to perfect their English in order to enhance their career prospects in international trade and business, and the growing number of Australians who are making headway in China also, having taken the time to study Chinese language and culture. 

Congratulations to all nine winners of this year’s event.

Carl Jetter,
Publisher, Australia China Connections 

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