How to Communicate Effectively With Chinese with Catherine Xiang

How to Communicate Effectively With Chinese

By Guest Contributor Dr Catherine Hua Xiang
Author of Bridging the Gap, Dr Catherine Hua Xiang, draws on insights from intercultural communication studies to provide practical advice for Westerners looking to engage successfully with Chinese clients or partners.

Communicating effectively with Chinese people, especially in business contexts, requires a nuanced understanding of cultural and communicative norms that differ significantly from those in the West. This article draws on insights from intercultural communication studies to provide practical advice for Westerners looking to engage successfully with Chinese clients or partners.

Understanding the Context

Understanding the importance of context is crucial in Chinese communication. Chinese culture is high-context, meaning that much of the communication is implicit and relies heavily on the surrounding context rather than direct verbal information. This contrasts with low-context cultures, where communication is more explicit and relies less on situational cues. Recognizing this difference can help avoid misunderstandings that arise not from a single miscommunication but from a failure to grasp the full spectrum of contextual cues.

A comparative study by Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey and Xing in 2004 illustrates the importance of context. They examined two Chinese-British business meetings, both superficially similar but with dramatically different outcomes. The first meeting appeared less successful due to its longer duration and the awkward wait before it started. However, it was the second meeting that damaged the business relationship, as the Chinese delegation felt disrespected by the lack of acknowledgment of their seniority and status, among other nuanced missteps. This case underscores the complexity of intercultural communication and the need to understand not just what is said but how it is said and in what context.

The SPEAKING model, developed by Dell Hymes, offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the key elements of communication in any context. This model can be particularly useful in preparing for important meetings or negotiations with Chinese counterparts. It emphasizes the importance of setting and scene, participants, ends, act sequence, key, instrumentalities, norms, and genre. By considering each of these elements, Westerners can better navigate the complex landscape of Chinese business communication, from understanding the significance of seating arrangements to recognizing the importance of small talk in building relationships.

Recognizing Seniority and Status

The significance of status in Chinese culture cannot be overstated. Business cards, for instance, often display two titles: one indicating expertise and the other, the individual’s role within the organization. Misreading these cues can lead to a breach of respect, negatively affecting business relationships. The story highlights the nuanced expectations surrounding status and respect in Chinese business culture and the importance of attentiveness to such details.

In Chinese culture, the concept of ‘face’ (mianzi) is paramount. Preserving one’s dignity and reputation in the eyes of others is critical. The failure of the British hosts in the second meeting to offer the Chinese delegation opportunities to speak or to acknowledge their seniority was perceived as a loss of face for the Chinese visitors. This cultural misunderstanding led to the cancellation of subsequent planned activities by the Chinese delegation.

Mastering the nonverbal communication

Additionally, nonverbal communication plays a vital role in Chinese business culture. For instance, the exchange of business cards is a ritualistic process that should be performed with both hands and with respect. Similarly, understanding the proper etiquette for handshakes, eye contact, and body language can help Westerners make a positive impression on their Chinese counterparts. Silence, too, is a critical aspect of Chinese communication, often used to reflect and think. Westerners should not feel compelled to fill every pause, as doing so can be seen as impatience or disrespect.

Practical Recommendations for Effective Communication

  1. Be Patient and Respectful: Patience and flexibility are key virtues when doing business in China. Westerners should be prepared for negotiations and decision-making processes that may take longer than they are accustomed to in their own cultures. Showing respect for these processes and investing time in building personal relationships can lead to more fruitful business outcomes. When the Walt Disney Company was negotiating the establishment of the Shanghai Disney Resort, it encountered several challenges related to high-context communication. Disney needed to navigate complex relationships with local government officials, business partners, and other stakeholders, which required patience and adaptability (Huang and Qian, 2018). During the negotiations, Disney’s executives often engaged in elaborate banquets and gift-giving ceremonies to build rapport and trust with their Chinese counterparts, demonstrating the importance of understanding high-context communication in Chinese business culture. However, their patience and effort eventually paid off and the Shanghai Disney Resort became a great success.


  1. Gain Knowledge of Cultural References: Learning about Chinese cultural references, idioms, and proverbs can also enhance communication effectiveness. These linguistic elements are often laden with historical and cultural significance, and their appropriate use can demonstrate a deep respect for Chinese culture. Similarly, learning some Mandarin, even at a basic level, can significantly improve rapport and communication with Chinese partners.


  1. Leverage Local Expertise: Leveraging local expertise is another critical strategy for navigating the complexities of Chinese business culture. Partnering with local experts or hiring employees with experience in the Chinese market can provide invaluable insights and guidance on effective communication practices. Uber’s initial entry into the Chinese market was challenging, partly due to a lack of understanding of local business culture and practices. To address this, Uber hired local managers with extensive experience in the Chinese market, such as Liu Zhen, a former executive at Baidu and Tencent. By leveraging local expertise, Uber was able to better navigate the Chinese market and adapt its strategy to local preferences.

In summary, communicating effectively with Chinese businesses requires more than just a straightforward exchange of information. It involves an understanding and appreciation of the high-context nature of Chinese communication, a respect for cultural and hierarchical norms, and an awareness of the nuances of verbal and nonverbal cues. By applying frameworks like the SPEAKING model and embracing patience, respect, and a willingness to learn, Westerners can build strong, respectful, and successful relationships with their Chinese counterparts. This approach not only prevents misunderstandings but also fosters a foundation for long-term cooperation and success in the dynamic Chinese market.


Dr Catherine Hua Xiang is an established author and applied linguist. She is Head of East Asian Languages at LSE, Programme Director of LSE’s BSc International Relations and Chinese course, as well as UK Director of LSE Confucius Institute for Business London. She is also a consultant to companies wishing to engage with China.


Suggested Reading

This is the first title in the new “Navigating China” series of books written by leading experts in the field of international businessand cross-cultural communications. The book unravels the nuances of effective communication in China. It introduces readers to the basics of intercultural communication. It also highlights cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic factors that shape how Chinese people communicate. This essential guide will equip readers with the understanding needed to navigate cultural differences, making their cross-cultural interactions more successful and rewarding.

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