Orlando Kelm on How to Talk Business in China

File-101703.1020.AHow can we avoid tripping over our own provincialism?

Everyone is talking about business in China. Just this past week at the Texas Executive Education Business Growth Strategies panel, professor John Doggett warned U.S. marketers they must learn to capture customers in China, or face extinction. John Berra, chairman of Emerson Process Management spoke of the decades of investment his company has made in Chinese manufacturing infrastructure in order to preserve their customer base.

Let’s assume we haven’t been to China. (Well I haven’t, have you?) Now we are all scrambling to familiarize ourselves with this new consumer marketplace, how can we avoid tripping over our own provincialism? I never read The Ugly American but I did see the movie and I get it, we can be jackasses overseas.

Orlando Kelm to the rescue. Kelm teaches Spanish and Portuguese at The University of Texas at Austin, and he also focuses on issues of global business culture. I ran across his series of cultural interviews with Chinese-speaking professionals (produced together with Jeanette Chen and Haidan Wang) and found it fascinating. The short video interviews feature Chinese business people discussing topics such as “When does Yes really mean No?” and “Are Americans seen as pushy?”

An example, from Xue Yan Liao from Guangzhou, China:

Generally speaking, Chinese people won’t express their meaning directly. They’ll express what they want or don’t want in a more circuitous manner. When negotiating, uh, in general, the people I know, if they’re saying “yes,” they’re probably more direct. [They’ll] come right out and say, “I agree with your view” or “I accept these terms,” this kind of thing. However, if, uh, when they don’t want to accept, they’ll probably say, uh, “Perhaps I can think about this a little more” or “I’ll go ask my boss,” or they’ll say, “I think you can improve these terms a little more,” these kinds of responses. It’s not a very direct way of communicating a negative meaning. But, but when you think closely about these answers, they’ve already told you that they don’t accept your view.

Uh, so I think that if you want to see if someone accepts your view, you have to look at his expression, [note] his tone, and the responses of the people around him, these kinds of things. That’s how you accurately judge whether it’s a “yes” or a “no.”   Uh, however, I think that now more and more Chinese are expressing themselves more directly, especially young people. If they don’t like something, they’ll, uh, probably say so directly. Uh, but I personally, I think being able to judge is a more, is probably more, uh, is a more insightful game, and probably takes more skill, so I won’t necessarily say things directly. That is all.

The interviews are short, easily digested (translated into three forms of Chinese and English) and somewhat endearing.

If China is not your bag, Kelm also features interviews with Brazilian, German, Japanese and Turkish executives.

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