By guest blogger, Brianna Zhang MBA
It is a given when working with individuals in another countries that a language barrier may present unique challenges that have to be gingerly navigated. Many business relationships can be won or lost by the ability to communicate in an efficient yet respectful manner. A genuine attempt to speak Mandarin can and will earn a favorable impression from your Chinese business associates. However, it is important to stress that one should never assume that a Chinese person’s inability to communicate in English proficiently affords the native English speaker (or any other language for that matter) to converse openly about sensitive business information.
A recent trip to China has provided me with an excellent example of foreign business people assuming there is a language barrier. My family and I were at a famous landmark on a business day. We saw a nice sitting area to rest our feet and wait for the others in our party to join us. As we take a seat, we are surrounded by Mandarin speakers and my family members were speaking Cantonese. NOTE: I must point out that I am very obviously not Chinese or Asian for that matter.
No more than 10 feet from us were two very smartly dress businessmen. As a habit, my ear perks up any time I hear English when traveling in Asia. The gentlemen tried to make English small talk with the Mandarin speaking ladies and reached a roadblock in the conversation, so the two gentlemen turned to each other to talk business.
The conversation started of fairly bland but quickly turned into very confidential information about a major US company. I was not intending to eavesdrop but these gentlemen made it too easy. They quickly assumed that everyone around them did not understand enough English and did not bother to scan the area.
In fact, I knew one week before the press release that a major US company was filing bankruptcy and all of potential deals on the table (company names and potential amounts). There was even talk about details of a highly profitable new technology that was not on the market yet. I was quite shocked that the information was being exchanged so openly.
It is important for all businesspeople to never assume the other party or surrounding parties do not understand their spoken language. There can be a very high cost to speaking so freely. Therefore, keep safeguard all confidential information and be mindful of your surroundings.
Brianna Zhang MBA is a manager for Kelley Small Business Institute, Center for Entrepreneurship at Francis Marion University. She also a marketing consultant at Square Meter Ceramics Company Limited, China.