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Tips for speaking in China

Dan Janal

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I received many good comments about speaking in China from SpeakerNet News readers. I am posting my comments first, and then the responses from the readers. Since 9 is a lucky number in China, I'll limit my Top 10 list to 9!

  1. First of all, go! I was afraid of communism, the military, and the escalating diplomatic rhetoric between the US and China. All of that was wasted energy. I found the people to be gracious hosts. Our hotel was 5 star by all accounts. Information flows into China freely from CNN Asia on the hotel TV, and we even got HBO. (Although I can only imagine what they think of us when they see "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," and "Neighbors." They might be afraid to come to the US!).

  2. Business cards. People do hand them over with both hands and read them. But they are not as formal as the Japanese. They do write on the cards. If you go, consider having your cards translated into Chinese on one side, English on the other, as they do.

  3. Be prepared for questions. They ask a lot of them, which is great. My sponsor told me just the opposite. If you have good content and a hot topic, plan on spending a good deal of time with questions.

  4. Command of English is poor, for the most part. My sponsor said 1/3 would be able to follow along with me in English, 1/3 could make out basic concepts and words and 1/3 would depend on the translator. They were right. Meet with your translator in advance to go over key concepts, jargon and technical words, and possible snafus (like long lists of numbers).

  5. You are an expert and they treat you royally. Be prepared to be honored like never before. They meet you at the airport, take you to dinner. They show you the sites and give a level of respect that is not seen in America. Imagine John Kenneth Galbraith showing up for your seminar instead of a celebrity. They like brains.

  6. Plan in advance for passports and visas. They take a while to clear. You might want to stock up on passport photos in advance for visa forms. If you expect multiple international engagements, having a stash will save you time in getting pictures taken every so often. Kinko's does a good job and charges about $12. It is a great convenience.

  7. Be prepared for dinner. The Chinese like to show off their food. All of it. From every region. A typical dinner for a visiting guest consists of about 12 courses. Eat sparingly, as they do. You are not expected to finish each course (served in community plates). This was borne out by a tour book I read. They also don't take the extra home in a doggy bag!

  8. Watch idioms. Okay, so I am not infallible. I said, "You don't want to make wild advertising claims because that would be a red flag to your customers." Fortunately, I caught the words' connotation before the translator started!

  9. See the sights. You will be amazed by the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, the Pandas and the street scenes.

-- Michael D. Lee, CSP

Some suggestions:
  1. Never talk about Hong Kong or Taiwan. Very controversial.
  2. Never talk about Chairman Mao. Has been favored, out of favor, etc.
  3. Keep gestures small. Chinese believe in expressing with your mind, not your body.
  4. Speak slowly so the interpreter can keep up.
  5. Back-up your facts with statistics or numbers. Chinese are very analytical.
  6. Like anywhere -- do not talk about sex, politics or religion.
  7. Give your interpreter a copy of your script in advance. Tell him or her the purpose of the lecture.
  8. Find out the appropriate greeting for the audience. You may be expected to bow and the depth of the bow will be dictated by the level of the audience.
  9. Watch what you wear. Remember, white is the color of death is Asia.
  10. The number "four" is unlucky for Chinese.

Learn to exchange business cards properly:
  1. Present with both hands with your card facing the other party.
  2. Accept their card with your RIGHT hand. (The left hand is considered unclean in China)
  3. NEVER write on a Chinese person's business card. It represents them, and you would never write on their face.

One last thought. Don't expect a lot of eye contact from participants at your seminar. Many Asians believe that to show respectful for a "teacher" that you never look them in the eye.

Also, they will probably not ask many questions. Again, to do so challenges the authority of the instructor.

(Dan's NOTE: I received questions about a wide range of areas that were not specifically covered in my talk, so I would not categorize those questions as challenges to authority. Maybe they wanted to challenge my topics and assertions, but didn't.)

-- Susan Friedmann

As for Beijing, I haven't spoken there, but have written a few articles on doing business in Asia. Two things to be aware of are 1. the significance of color and 2. the significance of numbers. The following is an excerpt from one of my international tips articles.

    "Avoid certain colors and numbers.

    In many of the Asian countries the number four denotes death and should be totally avoided, including products packaged in fours. If possible, avoid the number nine as it has connotations of suffering. Seven and eight are considered lucky numbers. Black, white, yellow and purple are often associated with funerals in Japan. However, red and yellow are considered lucky in China but never use red printing in South Korea To be safe, always do your research."

-- Bob Fink

I have been to Beijing and have spoken there as well (medical subjects). The society will appear to be "open," but it really is not.

There are a lot of subjects which are not "approved," but you may never know what they are because the people will smile and never let you know that you have made a gaffe.

Will you have a "host"? If so, rely on that person to orient you (no pun intended). Keep on topic and avoid obvious political references. There are a number of good books about Chinese culture available and you should check them out. How long before you go? It takes some time to get "up to speed".

Other tips:
  1. The technology (in Beijing) is pretty good. The phones work and everybody has a cell phone. Most hotels have good plug-ins for laptop computers, also, but not all ISPs have nodes there. If you know someone there who has Internet access (there are a number of Chinese ISPs), see if he/she will give you their password and sign-in.

    Once you get connected to a Chinese ISP (and if you know the IP addresses of your POP3 and SMTP servers which can be gotten from your own ISP), you can go anywhere on the Internet for the cost of a local call. I did it for 2 weeks.

  2. If your hosts offer you anything, always accept it. We were treated like royalty. Eating snake (and drinking its blood in an alcoholic beverage was interesting!) and turtle was an experience. BTW, be careful of an alcoholic drink called Moutai; it is *very* potent.

  3. Don't talk about Taiwan or other sensitive issues. We were there before the unfortunate bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, but I would imagine that this would be "off limits" also.

  4. The pollution in and around Beijing is terrible. If you have allergies, etc., make sure that you have your medication with you.

The Chinese people are wonderful. They are, however, "inscrutable" as advertised. Have a great trip!

-- Billy Arcement

I spoke in Beijing in 1983 when there was more of a communist atmosphere and much less democratic thinking allowed. My talk was about attitudes and how it impacts management style. I used exactly the same material I would have done for an American audience. No philosophy change, no slanting towards their way of thinking. It was very well accepted and was in fact picked among over 40 choices available. I received a very nice letter from a member of my audience.

The Chinese know what is correct and were very willing to hear opinions on subjects. They were gracious hosts and very interested in what we had to say. If you have a book, bring it. They love meeting authors and hold them in high esteem. Give it as a gift to your host and you will really make a hit. Be sure to sign it.

Don't get political with any of your remarks. Just give them the correct information and you should do well. It's OK to share philosophies on issues just keep it politically neutral. Go in with the intent to help and they will sense your genuine quality and take you in.

-- Dana May Casperson

Are you familiar with the Chinese culture? There are a few helpful books for you to read and use. Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, Morrison, Conaway, & Borden, $19.95; Passport China, Your pocket guide to Chinese Business, Customs & Etiquette, World Trade Press (415/454-9934) $6.95. Call if I can assist you in getting the guide.

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