For more than 30 years, we’ve helped many companies with their translation and interpreting projects. Some of that work targeted customers living in the U.S. who speak another language. Other times it focused on sharing marketing messages and product information with people in other parts of the world.
One thing we continue to emphasize to our clients is that translating or interpreting words is only part of a successful multilingual communication process. Another important piece—whether conducting business outside of the country or entertaining visitors at your company—is to adapt to the cultural, social and business customs of your foreign speaking customers. This means paying close attention not just to the words you use, but also to the images associated with your message, the method used to convey the message, and even the personal interactions you make with clients or customers on their home soil.
When it comes to global customer engagement, you have a better chance of success if you follow this holistic approach rather than just making sure the words are translated correctly. However, the problem with trying to conform to unfamiliar cultures is that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Like, were you aware that in Morocco, India and many Middle Eastern countries it’s okay to use your fingers to scoop food from a communal bowl at dinner? Or that flowers make a bad gift in Sri Lanka where they are associated with death and mourning?
In this and future blogs we’ll highlight some of the cultural nuances of different countries, so whether you just plan to visit or you’re hoping to expand your business, you’ll be better prepared. This week, we’re highlighting a few things about Chinese culture and customs.
There are several different variations of the Chinese language, with Mandarin being the most common. Another popular variety is Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and many other communities outside of the mainland. Know which variation is best for your target audience.
Respect and honor are highly valued characteristics, both on a personal and professional level. Demonstrating a solid reputation and showing respect for others will earn you high marks among the Chinese people.
Chinese companies tend to do business with companies they know and trust, so if you’re trying to begin a relationship, it’s best to be introduced by a reliable intermediary. Once the introduction has been accepted, provide written information that describes your company and its background, including products, services and history. Be sure the information is translated into the appropriate Chinese language variation.
In meetings or gatherings, you should greet the most senior person first. Handshakes are acceptable. However, since it is considered disrespectful to stare into another person’s eyes, many Chinese will avoid direct eye contact or look down at the ground.
Business communication is formal. Displaying proper respect for rank and hierarchy is the norm. Face-to-face meetings are usually preferred versus phone or written communication.
Bring your own interpreter to meetings and gatherings. If discussions will involve rather complex or technical topics, be sure to select an interpreter who is knowledgeable about the subject. Any printed materials you provide should be available in both English and Chinese, using “simplified” Chinese characters, versus the “traditional” characters. Be sure that all documents you provide are completely accurate to avoid misinterpretation—and embarrassment.
Print two-sided business cards with English on one side and Chinese on the other. Provide the cards at the start of a meeting and use both hands to present it to your counterpart, Chinese-side up. For cards presented to you, look at each one closely before putting it aside.
Gift-giving is common, but avoid using white, black or blue wrapping paper. Always present gifts with both hands.
For meals, use chopsticks to show your desire to adapt to their customs. It’s also acceptable to hold the rice bowl close to your mouth while eating. Typically, business topics should not be discussed at meals or social gatherings. If invited to someone’s home—a true honor—be prompt and remove your shoes before entering. Tardiness in social or business settings is considered an insult.
Remember, it’s just as important to “localize” your actions as it is your words. For help in preparing your outreach efforts to fit the cultural backdrop of your global customer, give us a call. In addition to a worldwide network of professional linguists who can handle your translation and interpreting projects, we offer a combination of focus groups, surveys and cultural training to assure your multicultural success.