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Communication Conundrums

Likewise, in China outsiders must derive most meaning from context and from what is not said, rather than from what is. This is partly because China is a high-context communication culture

By Michael Jones Updated Jan.1

When living or traveling internationally we tend to notice the differences between cultures before seeing the similarities. At first, we are alerted to the superficial differences. Even with something as complex as how people communicate, certain things are easy to spot. In China people write with characters, whereas in the UK, my homeland, we use an alphabet system. In China they use only one hand to sign counting to 10, whereas in the UK we use each of our 10 digits, and then struggle to mime higher numbers. In China people place their family names in front of their personal name, rather than behind it.  

However, over time, and upon further examination, there are some rather curious similarities between how people in the UK and China communicate. Indeed, international residents in both China and the UK often complain about having to interpret what local people really mean, because it often differs from what is said. This manifests itself in many ways in both contexts. In the UK outsiders often get confused when they realize that a person who seemed to be polite was actually being sarcastic, whereas a person making rude comments was actually showing affection. In these situations, context is everything.  

Likewise, in China outsiders must derive most meaning from context and from what is not said, rather than from what is. This is partly because China is a high-context communication culture. A culture in which a lot of communication exists outside of the specific words that are used. The level to which the UK uses high or low context communication is a matter for hot debate, although it is probably true to say that people in the UK typically utilise lower-context communication than people in China. Nevertheless, the two contexts do share further cultural features, which dramatically influence how people communicate, including the cultural trait of non-confrontation.  

Unlike our transatlantic cousins in North America, or our Teutonic brethren in Germany, the (sober) British will do absolutely anything to avoid confrontation. Step on someone’s foot in a British supermarket and they will apologize to you. Serve someone poor quality food in a British restaurant, and they will probably still tell the waiter it was lovely. This cultural trait can cause major misunderstandings, even with other native English speakers. For example, a British business partner who is deeply unhappy with your proposal will probably say “there are just a couple of small concerns,” rather than risk seeming confrontational by telling you that the entire proposal is unsatisfactory.  

Chinese communication exhibits a very similar confrontation avoidance. Often challenges, errors, mistakes, or problems remain completely taboo as topics of discussion, even though everyone knows of their existence. Instead, people talk about working towards further goals or objectives, rather than directly admit that the status quo is unsatisfactory. Likewise, Chinese people like to retain a sense of harmony within all environments, and so avoid open public criticism of each other. This is strikingly similar to the way that a British person might tell you that a colleague “has an interesting approach to things” rather than tell you the colleague is stupid, or might tell you the colleague “is very confident” rather than that they are rude; or might tell you that the colleague is “extremely interesting” rather than saying they are absolutely crazy.  

I recently found myself perfectly illustrating this spirit of non-confrontation, when writing a very angry professional email. Of course, being British, the email included an apology at the start, and a get-out clause “I am very sorry if I have misunderstood your previous message, however...” Nevertheless, as the email progressed, I clearly expressed my fuming rage as only a true Brit could, with utterly shocking directness, at the end of the email I signed “regards” instead of “best regards.” Such a bold move for a Brit. An unnoticeable difference for most others.  

There is, of course, no simple right and wrong in culture, yet that does not remove the need to critically reflect upon one’s own behaviors. Indeed, I recently reflected upon these communication challenges with a Chinese colleague who had previously worked in Spain. We both wondered whether we would be better off mentally and emotionally if we allowed our emotions to writhe wildly at the surface in that delightfully intense Mediterranean style. Surely it can’t be healthy for either the British or the Chinese to keep so many feelings bottled up, restrained and unreleased. Is that why both countries are known for the occasional late-night alcohol-fueled shouting match between couples or friends in the street? Would we be happier if we allowed our emotions to air more frequently? Possibly. However, we are who we are, and even if the rest of the world thinks we are crazy, maybe at least the British and Chinese can appreciate each other’s quests for harmony.