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Getting started with Chinese business culture essentials
Getting started with Chinese business culture essentials

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5 A little goes a long way

Nelson Mandela once said:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela (BBC, no date)

In an interview with OpenLearn, well-known BBC journalist Reeta Chakrabarti, who has been exposed to many languages and cultures, shared her experiences. She thinks that language opens the door to a culture. She explained:

You can get under the skin of a culture in the way that you can’t if you don’t speak the language, and you can make connections with people, have very immediate connections with them if you speak the language and that’s true; true in India and in France, and we all know when we go on holiday, don’t we, if you can speak a few words of the local language, people appreciate it and you can just get on better with people.

Reeta Chakrabarti (2016)

You can listen to the interview by visiting ‘Reeta Chakrabarti on language and culture’ on OpenLearn [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Open the link in a new tab or window by holding down Ctrl (or Cmd on a Mac) when you click on the link.)

Many westerners who have lived and worked in China have had similar experiences. Not only does speaking a little Chinese show your respect for and interest in Chinese culture, but it can also act as an ice-breaker, which will make your working experiences more enjoyable and at the same time establish some common ground with your Chinese colleagues. So, a little goes a long way.

Mr Smith worked in China for six months on behalf of Perkins Engines Company Ltd. In a personal account he says:

A small amount of language goes a long way (obviously), and is fun (obviously). I'm not a good learner, but was able to direct taxis, speak a bit about myself, and order food. My Chinese friends and colleagues were sincerely impressed with the efforts I made … and although I was far from conversant, this helped strengthen relationships, and went a good way to break down cultural walls between me and my colleagues…

He also comments on the topics of conversation:

‘[in general] Chinese people can be very inquisitive and don't have the same sense of personal space that Brits might. This is not rudeness but it can feel like it, and I had to try and suppress my anger at such intrusion at times. A stranger once approached me in a train station in Suzhou, stood right in my face, and in one breath, said ‘Hello my name is Qian, what’s your name, how old are you, are you married […]?’

So, be prepared to be asked very personal questions. Generally speaking, to a Chinese person such questions might not be considered private, but rather as questions to establish common ground when you first meet someone.

In the next section you will learn some basic greetings and phrases in Chinese.