After Hours

10 gaffes to avoid with respect to Chinese culture

If you're doing business in China, meeting with people from China, or planning to work there, you'll want to avoid certain missteps. Calvin Sun explains a bit about Chinese culture and provides a heads-up on a few common mistakes and misconceptions.


— You walk into the party wearing jeans — and everyone else is black tie.

— You're the emcee at a banquet, and as you're introducing the speaker, you forget the speaker's name.

— You write a check to your mother-in-law — and it bounces.

Gaffes are bad enough in your own circle of friends, associates, and family. They're infinitely worse when they occur in the context of another culture. According to the Everest Group, the market for outsourcing of information technology and other business processes to China is growing at 38% a year. By 2010, according to Everest, that market could reach $7 billion.

These numbers mean huge opportunity, but also huge opportunity to make mistakes. If you're doing business in China, or meeting with people from China, or want to work in China, watch out for these trouble areas, and avoid problems.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Use "Taiwan"

During its existence, this island off the coast of the People's Republic of China has been known by other names, including Formosa, the Republic of China, and Nationalist China. However, given the current political situation, Taiwan is probably the safest term to use. Unlike the others, it's one that almost everyone of Chinese descent, regardless of political leanings, is comfortable with.

#2: There's no such thing as a Chinese "alphabet"

Those symbols you see aren't letters. They're characters, also known as ideographs. They don't make up words, but rather each one is a word in itself. But just to confuse you, the sounds of those characters can be represented by English letters, a system known as Romanization. Furthermore, children in Taiwan learn Chinese characters by a special symbol system known as zhuyin fuhao. In spite of these two ideas, however, the Chinese characters themselves are words, not letters of an alphabet.

The Korean language, on the other hand, does have an alphabet... but that's a wholly different topic.

#3: Dialects are spoken not written

The Chinese language is made up of many different dialects, the two major ones being Mandarin (generally spoken in the northern part of the People's Republic, and on Taiwan) and Cantonese (generally spoken in the southern part of the People's Republic, Hong Kong, and in the Chinatown sections of cities in the United States).

Note the above reference to "spoken." The concept of a Chinese dialect applies only to the pronunciation of the characters, not to how they're written. A person who speaks Mandarin and a person who speaks Cantonese would use exactly the same written characters, for example, to represent the numbers 1 through 10, seasons, countries, or anything else. However, they would pronounce almost all of the characters differently and would have trouble talking to each other. Therefore, do not talk about "writing a service level agreement" in Mandarin or in Cantonese.

#4: Watch the tones

If you're studying or intending to study Chinese, great. One of the first things you'll learn is that the tone you use in saying a sound affects the meaning of the sound. I found this fact out quickly enough, because many times when I tried to speak Chinese, people around me would start laughing. One of the first times, after getting married, wasn't funny. When talking to my then new mother-in-law, I addressed her using the sound ma. However, because I said it in a falling, then rising tone (instead of the high level tone I should have used), the meaning came out as "horse."

Similarly, if at a restaurant, you mean to "ask for the check," you might inadvertently state that you are "buying eggs."

#5: Surname/given name "swap"

In Western culture, of course, one's given name precedes one's family or surname, e.g., "John Smith" or "Susan Jones." In Chinese and most other Asian cultures, the order is reversed: The surname comes first, giving us "Smith John" or "Jones Susan." The current leader of the People's Republic, Hu Jintao, has the family name of Hu 胡 and the given name of Jintao锦 涛, and would be addressed as "Mr. Hu" rather than "Mr. Tao."

However, not every Chinese person follows this custom. Some of them still use the Western sequence. In addition, the given name can be two characters (as above) or only one character. In the former case, the given name, when Romanized, can be written as two separate "words" ("Jin Tao"), one "word" ("Jintao") or hyphenated ("Jin-tao").

To reduce confusion, Chinese names are often written with the surname underlined. In any event, if you're not sure of the person's surname, simply ask. In addition, if you are completing an official government form, such a form often will ask you to underline your surname. The same Dale Carnegie principle applies to Chinese as well as Western culture: namely, that the sweetest sound to a person is the sound of that person's name. In other words, few persons will

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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