Chinese Business Ebonics

Business language is cryptic in nature. When you want to go home you say you are tired. When you don’t like the food you eat little and say you are full. When you don’t like the person  you blame tell the person some ridiculous problem with yourself as to why you cannot work together. All of these actions boil down to a few linguistic shortcomings many foreigners encounter while working abroad. Firstly, however, these are not 100% accurate, but they are 99.99% true. When doing business in China, you should never say things like: “The supplier should’ve known to do this”, “Why didn’t the supplier tell us”, “This isn’t right, make it right”, “The price is too high”, and “We need it fast.”

Let’s start with the first phrase. The supplier is not a psychic and they deal with people from around the world who look for different quality standards and pricing points. Each client has a different taste and preference for the product, so when you are expecting the factory to know something without you telling it, you are setting yourself up for shoddy quality and long lead times.

The second phrase is obvious if you understand Chinese culture. Most factories defer to you and expect you to tell them exactly how you like it. This is inherent in the hierarchical nature of China. When you pay, you are the boss, therefore,  you have to tell them what to do. If you don’t you will not be able to get what you want.

The third phrase is the reaction to the second phrase. Again, a little bit of Chinese culture is at play. While it is easy for foreigners to enter China and pay, it is just as easy for Chinese staff to shut down and not care about your product. Chinese are passive in nature and having an aggressive posture will only lead to them to shut down. Therefore, in light of the second and third phrases, one should always be direct, clear and concise, but in a respective “win-win” sort of way. Trust me, I’ve had many clients who bring me on after there products are already poorly made. In every instance, it was the case where they were not specific and then acted aggressively as if they are in America.

The fourth phrase is a very easy one to understand. In America, we have a rule, never reduce quality to reduce price. In China, this rule does not apply. When you tell a Chinese factory, “Your price is high.” what you really mean is that you cannot afford the proper inputs therefore change them. Most foreigners believe China is a bargaining culture, and, in many respects it is. However this statement signals a lack of finances, not a desire for a reduced price.

A better alternative would be to say something like, “the market price for input A is $$$, we’ve reviewed the production process and feel the price can be lower. What kind of reductions can you provide for larger quantities?” This sort of jargon signals that you are knowledgeable about the product, want a price reduction, but want to spend more money. Signals.

Lastly, “We need it fast.” usually means “We need it fast, don’t worry about the quality. We’ll fix that later.” When you tell a supplier to work faster than they suggest, you are bound to have a drop in quality. It always happens because to a factory, this is hinting that you don’t care about attention to detail.

Wording your phrases is often much more important in China than in America. Beware.

About the author

David writes about economic activity throughout Southeast Asia and specializes on international trade relating to China. In addition, he holds a Masters Degree in Economics from Peking University.
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