Dealing with Our Chinese Technical Communication Counterparts: What Do We Need to Know?

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June 2006

Dealing with Our Chinese Technical Communication Counterparts: What Do We Need to Know?

CIDMIconNewsletter Daniel Ding, Ferris State University

In December 2005, Comtech Services, Inc. organized a teleconference on technical communication in China. Nearly 20 professionals, including practitioners and educators, participated; they discussed the opportunities offered and challenges raised by the emergence of technical communication as a profession in China. The participants shared their experiences of dealing with their Chinese counterparts in the field of technical communication. This teleconference suggests that China is a growing market where technical communication can play an important role. It also suggests that more and more international professionals are communicating with China. These professionals need to learn how to communicate with Chinese professionals.

In China, although technical communication has been practiced for at least two thousand years, perhaps ever since I Ching was published, it has been largely undertaken by scholars in ancient China and by scientists, engineers, and/or technicians in modern China as a job attached to their professions. As a profession and an educational program, it is still at its early budding stage.

Our Chinese counterparts may view “technical communication” very differently than we do. Basically, they see it as language used for “special purposes.” For example, the University of Suzhou, where a colleague and I taught a summer technical communication course in 2000, has its own technical communication program under the name of “English for Special Purposes.” The name of the program implies that there is English for “regular purposes:” English for literature, linguistics, and composition. Students who are required to take this course are invariably those who major in science and technology. These students need to learn professional terms for their careers. Since they already possess professional knowledge, all they need to know is how to write correctly using English professional terms. That is, the content is already there; what is lacking is the container.

Science and engineering students do not understand the need to learn rhetorical strategies. These strategies, for Chinese students, are automatically acquired in their education because they are part of Chinese culture. They subconsciously or unconsciously apply these rhetorical strategies when they practice technical communication. For our Chinese counterparts, they seem to have a tacit knowledge of the requirements of technical communication in their fields. Often, this “tacit” knowledge of rhetorical strategies is one of the most difficult qualities for Western readers to appreciate and to understand because it is most prominently marked by cultural differences. In this article, I would like to discuss two “rhetorical strategies” Chinese professional communicators often use: indirect communication to establish a proper relationship and providing all known information up front to satisfy an expectation of predictability.

Confucianism Strongly Influences Chinese Professional Communication Practices

It is well-known to many that Chinese technical communication is indirect in many ways. Our Chinese counterparts prefer what Stewart and Bennett call “long greeting and leave-taking rituals.” For example, a Chinese professional communicator does not usually discuss pertinent business issues at the very beginning of a business letter; instead, she may greet her audience by recalling a memorable moment which both she and her audience shared in the past. Or she may greet her audience by complimenting her audience and humbling herself. Before she finishes the letter, she may further compliment her audience and humble herself. When she is discussing pertinent business issues, she may incorporate her personal stories into the business issues.

This practice of being indirect in technical communication is driven by Confucian ethics of establishing proper human relationships, being humble, and shunning personal profits. The three ethical principles of Confucian philosophy directly related to social interactions are Ren (good or benevolent), Yi (oughtness), and Li (code of human conduct). According to Confucianism, individuals who want to be good or benevolent (Ren) ought to follow the code of human conduct (Li) that governs their behaviors. Li consists of several principles that Confucian philosophy considers to be morally virtuous, including among other things, proper human relationships, modesty, and distaste for personal profits. When Chinese professional communicators try to observe these virtuous principles in their communication practices, the communication texts become indirect.

Establishing proper human relations, according to Confucianism, helps create harmonious social structures. Chinese business communicators, before addressing business issues, often establish the proper human relationships by defining their roles; then they fulfill their ethical responsibilities required by their roles, such as showing their respect and consideration. Thus, a Chinese professional communicator may, at the beginning of a business letter, define his role as his audience’s inferior by calling himself “this humble individual.” Then he fulfills the ethical responsibilities required by his role, such as complimenting his audience. In this way, he unambiguously establishes a proper human relationship with his audience which will be the moral basis for his audience to communicate with him. Establishing proper human relationships, then, helps the professional communicator establish harmonious business relationships with his audience.

Individuals in Chinese culture de-emphasize the self because they believe that self-actualization occurs only in social relations. That is, individuals exist only through their relationships with others. They always have a name defined by the relationship structure, for example, teacher, student, parent, wife, son, friend, etc. This emphasis on relationships leads Chinese culture to de-emphasize the self and stress the collective. In Chinese professional communication, the communicators de-emphasize themselves by describing themselves in derogatory terms and by describing their counterparts in complimentary terms. For example, they often deny compliments from others by replying “No.” They may also describe themselves as their counterparts’ inferiors by addressing themselves as “your younger brother.” According to Confucianism, modesty helps establish their credibility.

Confucianism also despises pure personal profits and gains because it believes that such profits are not obtained through righteousness, and thus, are not conducive to a harmonious society. Only selfish individuals seek personal profits. In Chinese business communication, individuals using Li-oriented strategies may emphasize the common interests of their collectives or of all parties involved, or they may stress the importance of long-term cordial relationships rather than pure personal profits. Some business people even discuss personal stories and hobbies to show that they are not just interested in profits but are also interested in establishing friendly personal relationships. All these strategies make business communication in China somewhat indirect.

Chinese Culture Delights in What Is Predictable, Not in Novelties or Surprises

Traditionally, China has been an agrarian society. In an agrarian society, people make a living by farming their land, which is the primary basis of their wealth. Even today, thirty years after China’s opening to the West, 70 percent of the Chinese population is still engaged in the farming industry. A major feature of farming is “being cyclical”—farming is a repeating series of known natural events and human actions, such as rain, wind, snow, fog, sun, spring, summer, fall, winter, tilling, sowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, threshing, storing, and so on. Farming activities may be described as a combination of these events and actions. These events and actions may be absolutely necessary at some point in time, or they may be absolutely unnecessary. The ideal combination, for farmers, is one in which all events are totally predictable and will occur in their expected order. Only in this way can a bumper harvest be predictable. Fung Yu-Lun, in his book A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, thus claims that Chinese culture admires what is known and condemns changes and novelties.

Thus, in Chinese culture, social and philosophical thinking has traditionally developed around an agrarian society. Chinese culture, according to Fung, mainly reflects farmers’ reaction to nature and their outlook on life. Farmers always expect things in their predictable order. When this outlook is manifest in one aspect of social interactions, such as professional communication, it makes communicators provide “known” information, thus pleasing their audience. For example, in Chinese culture, instructional manuals are primarily designed to describe the products they come with, not to provide guidance for consumers to use or operate the products. They may, for instance, name all the parts a product consists of, describe the shapes and colors of these parts, inform consumers of their measurements, and so on. In short, they repeat things that consumers themselves can find on the product—known information. Rarely do they provide information that guides consumers to use or operate the product—something they have yet to learn. I analyzed a Chinese manual for a water heater and found that the manual does not tell its users how to connect cold-water or hot-water pipes to the heater, nor does it tell them how to set up the water heater. Instead, it mainly informs them of the various parts of the heater. That is, the manual is simply informational.

To consumers from the West, it would be inconceivable that manuals only inform their users of what they know—information available from the product—instead of providing what they have yet to learn, such as actions they need to perform to use the product. One might doubt if such instructional manuals are usable at all. I’d like to point out that in Chinese culture, they are effective. First, consumers are not expected to perform a task of, say, setting up a water heater. So, even if the manual provided guidance to help consumers set up the water heater, they would most likely find it hard to follow, because the information would be focused on what they did not expect to know—on novelties. Second, technicians are expected to perform the set-up task, not consumers. Since the technicians are professionals, they know how to set up the water heater with the manual before them. The information about the parts from the manual serves to help the technicians predict the known actions, in their expected order, of setting up the heater. Providing guidance in the manual would be pointless.

Perhaps this expectation of the predictable is more striking in “bad news” letters. For example, when an individual is applying for a job position, he expects to get it. So, in a letter that is supposed to deny his application, the writer often refrains from telling the applicant that he has been denied. Instead, she may tell the applicant that his talent over-qualifies him for the position, so if she offered him the position, it could restrict his talent. Then she may continue to compliment him by describing his talent. To end the letter, she may stress to the applicant that he will give full play to his talent in a larger job setting where his talent will not be restricted. Throughout the letter, she discusses what is known already to the applicant—his qualifications and talent. She will rarely discuss what is not known—that his application has been denied.

The Western reader may claim that this is the strategy used in all “bad news” letters and that Chinese culture is no exception. However, Chinese culture does not see it as a rhetorical strategy designed by business writers. Rather, it is one aspect of Chinese culture—the delight in the predictable. Besides, the rhetorical strategy used in “bad news” letters is just a buffer before the “bad news” is revealed; in Chinese culture, it is almost the entire text of a “bad news” letter. In Chinese culture, this delight in the predictable is not only manifest in “bad news” letters, but also in almost all business letters and many business negotiations. For example, in these letters and negotiations, parties involved may use some current, well-known, boilerplate material to please each other, text from newspapers or trade journals like “making contributions to building a well-to-do society,” “taking your interests into consideration,” and “answering a certain person’s call.” But whether they do so or not is not important to any party; what is important is that these well-known phrases please all the parties involved, making them, especially the guests, at home. (Actually, one may also see this expectation in Chinese literature, journalism, education, etc.)

The two rhetorical strategies I have discussed are not designed by Chinese writers. Instead, they are designed by Chinese culture; they are part of the culture. I want to stress that Confucianism does not influence every single Chinese professional communicator, nor does everyone delight in things in their expected order. More and more professional communicators have begun to incorporate rhetorical strategies from the West, especially since China opened its door to the outside world thirty years ago. But Confucianism is still the most influential philosophy in China, as it has been in the past 2500 years. China is still largely an agrarian country, and farmers still account for 70 percent of its population. So, we will continue to see the presence of these two rhetorical strategies in Chinese professional communication. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author

Daniel Ding

Daniel Ding, PhD
Associate Professor of English
Ferris State University

Daniel D. Ding, PhD, an associate professor of English at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI, teaches technical communication, advanced composition, and scientific writing. He and his colleague once conducted a seminar on technical communication at Suzhou University, China. His research interests include international technical communication and rhetoric of scientific and technical communication. Daniel also publishes in these areas.