East Meets West: Managing Culture Clash in Communication with China

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April 2008

East Meets West: Managing Culture Clash in Communication with China

CIDMIconNewsletterCarol Barnum, Southern Polytechnic State University

A colleague was on his way to China for the first time, as our representative at an important ceremony. The details of his trip were not finalized until shortly before he was due to leave, so he had little time to prepare. The only advice he received from the person who had made the trip many times before was, “wear a navy blue suit.” When he shared this advice with me, I was stunned (and amused), not only by its lack of utility in even minimally preparing him for the situation he was about to step into, but also for the lack of any evidence that I am aware of to support such advice. Yet, I can easily imagine that many businesspeople making their first trip to China receive similarly vacuous, vague, or misplaced advice—if they receive any advice at all—to effectively prepare them for a fruitful business undertaking in China.

Whether your goal is to set up a joint venture in China, expand the sales for your products or services to an audience that includes Chinese consumers, or staff a documentation group in China (or another Asian country), you will probably find yourself puzzled or confused by the customs of the Chinese as compared to the practices you understand from your Western/American lens of culture. If you are already working in China or another Asian country, you don’t need to be told that communication problems are commonplace… both from your Asian counterparts to you and vice versa.

The reasons behind the differences in communication between China and the United States come down to significant cultural differences shaping how each culture sees the world and the individual’s place in it. What you “see” as an American is not typically what you “get” in conversation and in writing with the Chinese. Mere translation of your product literature or documentation will not address the different expectations for organization, tone, even methods of description or instruction that the Chinese expect through their cultural and educational experience.

Based on my experience in teaching, training, speaking, and traveling in China for 20 years and in my readings of Chinese culture and communication styles, I have been able to distill a few principles that can help explain the differences. Armed with this information, you will be one step closer to understanding information you receive and communicating information that will serve you far better than the dictum to wear a navy blue suit.

Chinese Style Reflects Cultural Values

Chinese style differences can be observed in their preference for formal writing, their use of what appears to Americans to be verbose prose, and their preference for poetic language and military metaphors.

Formal writing style

If a Chinese document, regardless of its size or scope, is viewed as having any potential economic impact or official sanction, the preferred style is formal, as opposed to the more conversational style commonly used in similar documents written by and for American readers. A preference for a formal writing style also fits well within the Confucian tradition (still an important influence in China), which relies on acceptance of a hierarchical structure of respect for one’s elders and those in senior positions. Such preference may also explain the long-standing use of British English textbooks in China, which reflect a more formal discourse, as shown in the following examples recommended for Chinese business correspondence:

  • We have pleasure in acknowledging receipt of your favor of the 10th May ….
  • Herein we have the pleasure to hand you ….
  • We thank you in advance for the anticipated favor ….
  • Further to your letter dated 15 November, I am writing concerning ….

The Cambridge BEC (Business English Certificate) is widely used in courses at the university level in China. Books in this series suggest such essential report writing phrases as

  • No conclusions were reached regarding ….
  • It would be advisable to ….
  • It is suggested that ….
  • It is felt that the above measures will result in ….

As you are aware from your own experience, American business writers—and technical writers in particular—are taught in college and trained on the job to refrain from using such wordy prose, particularly with so many passive constructions, which do not state who is suggesting, advising, and so forth. American technical communicators also value conciseness in support of clear communication. Most American business people are familiar with the KISS formula (Keep It Simple, Stupid), and use it as a guide for effective communication.

Whereas the Chinese value the C’s of correctness, courtesy, consideration, and completeness in their writing, Americans value two other C’s: conciseness and clarity. If the principles of conciseness and clarity are applied to Chinese communication, the likely result would be a directness that would make the Chinese uncomfortable, particularly as it would violate the Chinese emphasis on courtesy and consideration. Thus, Chinese writing is generally characterized by indirectness, wordiness, formality of tone, and absence of conclusions and recommendations, in deference to the perceived superiority of the reader to determine what to do with the information without advice from a subordinate.

Verbose prose

A more formal prose style tends to result in a greater number of words per sentence. The Chinese admire this style of writing, as illustrated in the following translation of a “well-knit sentence,” as it is called in China:

With a view to expanding the opening-to-the-outside-world and accelerating the foreign investment promotion so as to bring about in the city an economic development in a steady, fast, and healthy way, the Municipal Party Committee and the Government have, according to the relevant stipulations documented by higher authorities and taking into consideration the actual conditions of the city, put forward after the discussions the proposals for encouraging foreign investment as follows.

In addition to what Americans would describe as wordy prose associated with such a formal style, Chinese documents also display a greater use of adjectives and adverbs than in the equivalent American documents. Thus, while some parts of a Chinese document lack specificity, others may be viewed by American readers as overly descriptive or wordy. Some typical examples from Chinese documents follow (bold emphasis added):

  • The functions and levels of urban public utilities and services should basically satisfy the needs of economic and social development by preliminarily setting up the relatively perfect overall social service system.
  • We should further simplify procedures and take prompt and vigorous action to import urgently needed technology and earnestly organize scientists, technicians, and the mass of workers to assimilate and popularize imported technology.

In the United States, businesspeople who write in such an effusive manner are often thought to be trying to dress up their work or put on airs of self importance. Strunk and White, the well-known authors of the powerful little book called The Elements of Style, caution against this style of writing for the following reason: “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating” (page 72).

Poetic language

In addition to a preference for rich, ornate prose, Chinese writing reflects a preference for poetic language, which may have its roots in the origins of calligraphy, Chinese script. The earliest known examples are found on the bones of oxen and on shells of turtles (about 1200 BCE) and are thought to be a form of communication with ancestral spirits. The mythical creator of the Chinese writing system, Cang Jie, was said to have invented the ideograms (Chinese characters) by observing natural forms, such as prints left by bird claws and shadows cast by trees. Thus, Chinese writing has long been associated with metaphor and poetic expression. Influenced by this tradition, Chinese writers tend to use poetic language in preparing technical documents. American technical communicators, in contrast, would quickly excise such needless expressions.

Military metaphor

The use of metaphor is a popular form of expression in many languages and cultures. American writing makes ample use of sports metaphors in business, as we can recognize in such common expressions as “level playing field,” “out of bounds,” and “off sides.” Chinese writing tends to reflect a preference for military metaphor. This tendency may have its roots in China’s ancient past, where worship of famous generals is part of China’s appreciation of its long history; or it may result from the more recent experience of many governmental officials, who in the 1950s and 60s were demobilized soldiers and commanders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In their speeches to civilians, these former soldiers often use military terms, as if still speaking to soldiers. As a result, a big project involving a lot of personnel would be likened to a decisive battle; a teacher with supervisory responsibility would be called the commanding person of this teaching staff; the younger generation might be described as the fresh and combat-worthy troops in building the motherland; and the effort of tackling the most difficult part of a task might be likened to gongjianzhan, a battle in which fortified positions are stormed. This tradition of using military metaphor has been handed down to the present generation and become a linguistic habit. For example, the China Translation and Publishing Company has the following tagline on the English-language version of its web site: “What we are doing is to demolish the barrier of languages.” <www.ctpc.com.cn>

Chinese Documentation

If your company is selling products in China or staffing an office of technical communicators there, the question of approaches to handling documentation has to be addressed. Can these documents be translated effectively? Or do they need localization? And, if localization is feasible, what issues must be addressed to provide effective documentation?

Documentation for Chinese-made products frequently reflects the Chinese preference for indirectness and imprecision. In addition, the Chinese prefer visuals to text, perhaps because of the pictorial nature of their character-based written language. A usability study conducted by Siemens that compared German and Chinese cell phone users bears out this preference, with the Chinese users requesting more pictorial information and less text. In the sample precautions page from a manual for a refrigerator manufactured in Nanjing, China, by the Xinlian Machine Building Company, a joint venture with Siemens, this approach is used, with minimal text to support the pictures. (See Figure 1).


Figure 1: Sample precautions page from the Xinlian Machine manual

In studying the text for this precautions page, you will notice that the information in the text is generally vague and non-specific about how to carry out the proper action to use the refrigerator safely and to avoid harm to the product or injury to the person. This perceived vagueness is, seemingly, perfectly appropriate for the Chinese audience, as explained in a fascinating article by Daniel Ding entitled “The Emergence of Technical Communication in China—Yi Jing (I Ching): The Budding of a Tradition”. Ding characterizes the classic I Ching (also known in English as The Book of Changes) as the first Chinese technical communication text, appearing in the fifth century BCE, with commentary later added by Confucius. Revered by Chinese to this day, it presents short texts or “oracles,” which provide instructions on how to solve specific problems, such as storing grain, building a well, or waging war. The approach used is to show a picture (pictogram), followed by guidance on performing the task. However, as Ding illustrates in his translation of the oracle on using a well, the instructions do not present specific actions nor do they give explicit steps to perform the task. As Ding explains, the oracle “does not teach readers to use a well; it helps them decide whether a well can be used. That is, it helps readers analyze the context in which a well can be used.” Ding further explains that readers don’t try to interpret the oracles on their own; they ask a professional for help.

The very same finding was revealed in the comparative study of the Chinese cell phone users, who wanted the manual to give them only the basics for getting started, as they said they preferred trial and error, imitating their friends, or getting help from the store clerk where they purchased the phone, rather than reading the manual. Once they had familiarized themselves with the basic operation, they preferred online help over the manual. The German cell phone users had the exact opposite need; they wanted to be fully informed about the principles of operation and expected the manual to clearly provide this information.

Chinese Legal System Changing

To further complicate matters, although Chinese tradition establishes an accepted approach to conceptual, rather than procedural documentation, the legal system in China is changing the way consumers are starting to view the requirements of documentation. Although it is still difficult for a consumer to bring a lawsuit against a manufacturer in China, lawsuits over damage or injury, once unheard of, are now becoming more common. Consumer and manufacturer awareness has been raised, particularly since the passage of a national consumer protection law in 1993. It is interesting to note that the first obligation of the law is to create documentation to accompany consumer products. In cases where there are potential risks to consumers, the law states that

“Business operators

[manufacturers and trading partners] shall guarantee that the commodities or service provided by them are in conformity with the personal and property safety requirements. In case there is a possibility that their commodities and service may be hazardous to personal and property safety, they shall make truthful presentation and give clear warnings to consumers and shall explain and label the method of using the commodities or accepting the service, as well as the directions for preventing the occurrence of such hazards.”

An article in the Chinese newspaper Jinghua Shibao addresses the issue of inadequate documentation:

“The fashionable life with its fast pace makes us depend heavily on domestic electric appliances. The appliances with multiple functions and beautiful shape can meet the demands of consumers for goods. However, many people have the experience that functions specified by instructions cannot be realized, or even though you closely follow the instructions you do not know how to operate the appliance. When these problems arise, people cannot help asking what an instruction illustrates.”

The newspaper article then lists the problems with instructions, including

  • lack of plain language
  • exaggeration of claims
  • too much technical terminology
  • vague language
  • overly simplistic content
  • precautions not clearly specified

Which Language for China

One more hurdle to jump in serving the Chinese market regards language. If English-language documentation is being translated for the China market, the question then becomes which character set and what reading orientation will be used? In 1956, Mao instituted a new character set of simplified Chinese characters to improve literacy in China. Taiwan still uses the traditional character set, which not only employs more complex characters but also is read vertically from top to bottom and then horizontally from the right side of the page to the left. Mainland Chinese writing is read horizontally from left to right (like English). However, Hong Kong changed over to simplified characters only with the handover to China in 1997. So, which character set and which orientation is best for your chosen market? In the case of the precautions page for the refrigerator, the traditional characters are used, most likely to expand the market of the refrigerator to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. The generally accepted thinking is that those schooled in the simplified characters can understand the meaning of the traditional characters in their context of use even if they cannot read them.

Forearmed is Forewarned

If there is one takeaway from these examples of the differences between Chinese and American writing styles and approaches, it is that an approach to doing business in China (and, more to the point, creating effective documentation) is not simple but certainly not insurmountable either. The first step in bridging the cultural gap is recognizing the basis for some of the differences. This small contribution to that understanding may spark the desire for further reading and consultation on the subject. Certainly, advice about how to communicate with Chinese business partners, customers, and employees, how to create clear documentation for Chinese consumers, and how to improve customer and client relations goes much deeper than the need to wear a navy blue suit, or anything else as superficial as that.

While the Chinese take the long view in establishing business relations built on friendships strengthened over time, they may also decide that the proper respect is not being shown in our correspondence and conversation—including meetings via web-conferencing technology—and in our lack of understanding of how to effectively communicate safety and concern for the welfare of the Chinese consumer using our products. We can avoid such needless missteps by also taking the long view and learning more about the Chinese and their culturally based communication preferences. A wonderful book that illustrates the difference in thinking patterns between the Eastern and Western mind is The Geography of Thought. After reading it, you won’t see the world the same, but you’ll likely have a better appreciation of how profound the challenges are we face in communication between East and West. However, as the Chinese expression so aptly states, “A journey begins with a single step.” CIDMIconNewsletter

Carol Barnum


This article follows Carol Barnum’s keynote presentation at the CIDM 2007 Best Practices Conference, in which she focused on China in illustrating some of these issues in written communication. Slides for that presentation are available at https://www.infomanagementcenter.com. Although her focus was on China, many of the principles presented in the slides and in this article apply to other Asian countries. Likewise, although she compares and contrasts China and the United States, it is possible to expand this comparison to a more generalized comparison of East versus West.

Carol is a frequent speaker on cross-cultural communication, and a Fulbright Senior Specialist (Asia specialty in business and technical communication). She has been working and traveling in China and throughout Asia for 20 years. Her most recent trip to China was to provide teacher training for Chinese teachers at Northeast Normal University, Changchun, China, before their students arrived at Southern Polytechnic to complete a BS degree in Technical Communication. A similar program is now underway at North China University of Technology, Beijing, where she was a visiting professor in 1987.

Note: Parts of this article have previously appeared in Technical Communication and Multilingual.


Daniel D. Ding

“The Emergence of Technical Communication in China—Yi Jing (I Ching): The Budding of a


Journal of Business and Technical Communication

July 2003

Pia Honold

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Technical Communication


Richard E Nisbett

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2003, New York, New York

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ISBN: 0743255356

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

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