Thursday, December 11, 2008

How important is it for a foreigner to be able to speak/understand Chinese when doing business in China?


The other day I sat in on a meeting between a European buyer (German, in fact) and a Chinese supplier. My role in the meeting was minimal, so I won't go into that. Rather, I'd like to touch on another subject that I couldn't help but wondering about while I sat and listened at this meeting: how important is it for foreign companies to have foreign staff that speak Chinese?

In this meeting, there were none. The German buyers were new to China and had no understanding for Chinese language, and little understanding for Chinese culture. I was positively surprised that unless the supplier spoke with Shanghai dialect, I could understand pretty much everything they said in Chinese. I could also understand a lot of what the Germans said to each other, as German language is quite similar to Swedish (well, not quite similar, but it is still quite understandable, many words are alike, and so on). To make the negotiation possible there were two young Chinese women who knew the product, the suppliers and the buyers, acting translators.

So there was a total of 6 people and I cannot say that the negotiation went smoothly. Rather, it was kind of painful to listen to at times. Mainly, because they couldn't speak to each other in their native language, and none of them had perfect English, so a lot of information was lost on the way. Also, a lot of times this sort of discussion happened:

Buyer: I think it is too expensive, can we lower the price with 20 cents? Because this and this has been changed so the price should drop a bit...

Translator: I will ask the supplier. (Translates to the supplier and briefly goes over all the changes that has been made, some being clear and some not so clear)

Supplier: It is not possible. The price is already low, ra ra ra.... (the translator and the supplier argues for a good 10 minutes).

Finally, the supplier agrees on lowering the price with 10 cents. The translator turns to the buyer:

Translator: OK, so you can get 10 cents cheaper, is that OK.

Buyer: 10 cents? But I asked for 20? Why only 10?

Translator: (looking tired) She said so. 20 cents is impossible. But it is OK. I will ask again.

The buyers start discussing in German.

Five minutes later, they suggest another change in the product in order to lower the price further. The change is kind of complicated and I can see on the translator that she doesn't fully understand. Still, she says 'OK' and starts to explain to the supplier, I can already tell that the suggested change isn't coming through in her speech, and that the supplier isn't going to bulge. Another 10 minutes discussion takes place. In the end, the Germans get a price drop of 12 cents and no one follows up on the changes that were suggested. Nobody seem really happy and the translator and supplier continues to argue in local dialect for some time.

This whole discussion, over just one product took them more than 30 minutes and that was actually a quite fast example. Other discussions would take up to one hour, mainly because explanations were lost in translation, the supplier didn't understand what the buyer wanted, the buyer didn't understand the suppliers way to think, and so on... I just sat there and wondered to myself if I would have been able to get a better price while negotiating (I wasn't in a position to speak however, so I shut up) since I could have presented my points straight to the supplier. Even though I didn't know all the technical aspects of the product, I still think I could have made my point a bit clearer.

This meeting made me wonder how many meetings are like that here in China. Probably loads. Even though the number of foreigners that can speak Chinese is rising, I still don't think it is that common that meetings/negotiations can take place completely in Chinese at foreign enterprises. It takes a long time to master Chinese, and besides, even though a foreigner could speak Chinese, s/he might not be up for negotiating with a local that prefers negotiating with another local... Also, it is obviously not enough to know Chinese, u have to understand the Chinese culture too (although if you have studied Chinese in China for some years you probably will have a quite good idea of the 'Chinese way')

Obviously, since many Chinese people nowadays speak English, it is more common that the meeting is held in English. But I believe many details can be misunderstood when a meeting is held in a non-native language, especially if the other part is German/ Swedish/ Italian/ from whatever country where English isn't the population's first language. Also, I sometimes feel that Chinese people, even though they don't understand your point, will say 'OK' just because they don't want to seem stupid/lose face by asking you one more time. I think the culture gap between a European country like Germany and China makes the negotiation a bit harder than usual, for both parts. I wonder how much smoother it could have gone if the German company actually had someone German who could negotiate/explain her points in Chinese.

What do you guys think? How important do you think it is for a foreigner to speak Chinese when doing business in China? How many misunderstandings can be avoided? Or, is English enough?

14 comments:

Justin said...

I think it depends on what kind of business they're doing. mostly they need, 'cause it's very helpful to build the network with the Chinese officials.

Jono said...

I hope that it's quite important otherwise I am going to have a hard time finding a job in the future! I tend to find that westerners translate things more thoroughly whilst many Chinese people give a lot of credit to the expression "Lost in Translation"!

Max said...

Well, good news for me then, as a Chinese-learning German ;)

janosch said...

yap, same as max :)

afritzse said...

There are many interesting German books on Chinese business and negotiating culture, so that part wouldn't take a lot of effort to prepare for. Knowing the culture well, keeping discussions simple, in good English is probably the best route, as learning Chinese, especially written Chinese, just takes too much time for the average Westerner.

Jono said...

Can you learn Chinese business and negotiating culture from a book? I think its something that requires practice and experience - as in spending at least a couple of years over here, preferably embedded in a fairly Chinese lifestyle rather than living the expat high life.

Mark's Blog said...

Well, I think the real problem is cost.

There are Chinese who can speak German or Spainish, but the number is relatively small and it takes time to find someone that is qualified. But since almost every Chinese start learning English from 12, it might actully be the language Chinese prefer if the other side cannot speak Chinese and the Chinese side does not have non English translator.

As for Westerner speaking Chinese. I guess it's going to take a while before there are enough.

However,the level of language one masters could also be a big problem for both sides, especially for Westerners. As good Chinese speaker could do a lot more than just understand the details,but also negotiate effectively, know the strength and weakness of the other side from the way they speak, catch the non verbal information and so on

Lan said...

"Lost in Translation",I do agree!

Sometimes, when I doing my business assignment together with my swedish classmates, we cannot use English to explain ourselves well.Thus, Jag studerar Svenska nu.

Jonna Wibelius said...

I don't think it is black and white, but I def think it can help a western person to do business here if s/he knows the language. Funny how some people think it requirers 'too much' of a western person to learn Chinese, meanwhile Chinese people learn German, Spanish and English -languages that must be really hard for them!!

Learning how to do business from a book isn't something I believe in though... I think u learn as u go, just as with most things.

Jono said...

Hmm... I agree with you on western attitudes to learning Chinese. In fact, I believe this reflects many western people's attitudes to learning languages in general and not just specifically chinese - that is that in general, we are incredibly negative towards studying a new language. I may be biased - as I come from the UK where most people are too lazy to learn another language - but I believe that we often make learning a foreign language into far too big a deal, as if it was some impossible feat that other people do but that we are not expected to do ourselves. In reality, most European languages can be learned to an acceptable extent within a couple of years and from personal experience, Chinese (at least spoken Chinese) can be fluent within a couple of years of study - although written chinese will take a little longer.

I would however argue that it is a lot easier for Chinese people to learn to get to grips with our writing systems as they normally only have to learn a few letters, some accents and they are already on their feet!

sam said...

It seems that the negotiation would be a tough work for two countries people set together with no same language, it is totally wrong. In the negotiation meeting, only few points make sense to focus on, as a professional marketing man, he/she should know the basic deadline accepted on his own interest, therefore, it might be looks like a complicated game they played at the beginning but eventually turn back to the main points which they concerned. Language sometimes acted a tool to be used in finding the basic acceptance, anyway, both sides should create friendly atmosphere and understandable each other and it is good for making the both parties come together and keep the business running in future. Business negotiation is kind of curious work which takes your brain in a tense because of drapes inside, you find a weakness quotation of other side, and you have space to lower their price. As a smart business man, they know it already before they come to meet each other, unless otherwise you don’t care about money and delivery.
There are a lot of foreigners speak excellent Chinese now on the table for discussion in any kind of business negotiation (you may not meet such people), they knew how to deal with business in China other than most of Chinese, strategically, they use their own regulation to make Chinese people in a passive situation. Chinese still in a limited area to develop their business.

Emil said...

Where I work I was told how hard and how much work it would be with some of our partners. They seem to always fuck up, and that I should not trust that they would do as we had agreed to etc etc.

This was all said by a guy who did not speak chinese, and they usually used translators. I have always spoken chinese to them, and I have never experienced this problem, they seem reliable and trustworthy. That makes me think if it have been the language barrier that earlier made the conflicts.

So I really think it helps in any kind of business you do with chinese people so speak some chinese. You can connect with them on a whole different level

Emil said...

Where I work I was told how hard and how much work it would be with some of our partners. They seem to always fuck up, and that I should not trust that they would do as we had agreed to etc etc.

This was all said by a guy who did not speak chinese, and they usually used translators. I have always spoken chinese to them, and I have never experienced this problem, they seem reliable and trustworthy. That makes me think if it have been the language barrier that earlier made the conflicts.

So I really think it helps in any kind of business you do with chinese people so speak some chinese. You can connect with them on a whole different level

Freddy said...

Totally true. I´m in that situation every day...