After several years in China, a successful sales manager reflects on his first blunders about town; photo from Wikipedia Commons

By Justin Shuttleworth

In early August of 2007 I found myself on a plane over the Pacific, headed to Beijing via Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. It was a long flight – normal flight times between China and the west coast of the United States are 12-15 hours with the stop in Japan. You can get a non-stop flight from Seattle to Beijing as short as 11 hours, but it’s often crowded. Either way, it’s an arduous trek that leaves inexperienced travelers physically and mentally exhausted.

It is perhaps because of this exhaustion that I cannot recall what I was thinking of on my first flight to China. I had little idea of the people, infrastructure, or work atmosphere of China, and despite being in contact with my friend (and soon to be boss) for over a year prior, I had no idea what life was going to be like. I came to China completely ignorant of its culture, customs and language.

Although life was tough at times, I’m pleased to say that I survived and eventually thrived. After a few years as a successful businessman in China, I now understand Chinese business etiquette and can even write many common Chinese characters. However, I wish I had prepared more. A little preparation might have saved me from culture shock that would result in hundreds of hours of unnecessary grief.

When the editors of invited me to become a guest contributor, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: write a column for the uninitiated and under-prepared visiting mainland China for the first time. I wanted to write articles that had hints on what to expect and prepare for. I wanted to help make our readers’ professional and personal transition as smooth as possible in mainland China. (Notice I used the word “mainland” to preface China ­– more on that in a bit.) So please enjoy my cross-cultural blunders. I hope you can learn something from them!

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After a couple of years in China, and a few more Narita Airport stopovers, I started feeling more comfortable with my expatriate lifestyle, and more confident in my work as a sales manager in Shanghai. My duties often required me to attend multiple social networking and award events sponsored by our various clients. I remember with alarm and a sense of personal inferiority how in the beginning, unskilled in the nuances of Chinese culture, I would narrate my initial experiences in China with potential customers. The narrative would often begin with a statement such as, “When I first got off the plane in Beijing I didn’t know ni hao (‘hello’ in Mandarin) and thought the Chinese still wore straw hats and everyone knew Kung Fu!”

The point of my antics, of course, was to break the ice and start up a conversation with a potential contact or customer. I figured if I started a conversation by over-emphasizing my initial ignorance of China that, it would seem lighthearted, self-effacing fun. I guess I assumed by making fun of my own ignorance I would seem less formal and therefore less threatening (remember I was in sales.) In retrospect, it might have been acceptable to reminisce as such if I were back in the United States. But in China my break-the-ice story was a major communication blunder in the context of local business culture that very likely resulted in harmful misunderstanding.

When a person speaks, interpretation of meaning is left open to the listener. A common mistake among expatriates is to assume the audience will understand our culture – in my case, what I thought was self-evident verbal irony. In fact quite the reverse is true, which can double the crossed wires. Many important business deals and relationships are never initiated because of the misunderstandings caused by this blithe disregard of cultural and communicational differences. In the example of the icebreaker, instead of portraying myself as humorous and humble, I most likely seemed obnoxiously proud of my own ignorance as many Chinese friends later helped to make clear to me.

So my first advice to Western business professionals working in mainland China (or new arrivals reading this to kill time during their first Narita Airport transfer) is this: Your words hold weight. People will take you literally if you don’t take great pains to explain yourself. Keep exaggeration and hyperbole to a minimum – at best you will be misunderstood; at worst you could lose a valuable customer or employee. So refrain from attempts at over-familiarity as I did. Instead, it’s much better to lean towards the old adage: Better to be silent and let the room assume you a fool than open your mouth and confirm it!

Finally, I promised you a tidbit on why I used the phrase “mainland China” instead of simply “China.” Many of you may already know the answer to the mainland China vs. China question. But for those of you that are unaware of East Asian history or the current cross-strait relations, I remind you that Taiwan and China were once one nation and, depending on the perspective, still are. Even though I knew this before traveling to China, I was still a little surprised to see maps of China that included Taiwan as a province.

Taiwan is among the “three T’s” that should almost never be talked about when working and living in mainland China, along with Tibet and Tiananmen. When you need to differentiate something between Taiwan and China it is always safest to say “Mainland China” or “Chinese Taiwan” (even the Taiwanese Olympics team recognizes this by calling themselves “Chinese Taipei”). To a lesser extent this could also apply to Hong Kong and Macau. It’s best to avoid the topic of politics altogether but, if pressed by a Chinese person (which will certainly happen to you sooner or later, in blunt fashion) make sure that they understand that you know they consider Taiwan to be part of China and reveal little to nothing of your own views.

In future article I’ll talk more about the other two “T’s” so you can avoid those minefields as well. I’ll also talk more about the journey that took me from Beijing to Shanghai and ultimately back Stateside. I’ll explain the lessons I learned about culture shock, learning Mandarin and Chinese characters, the contrasts between overseas Chinese, Taiwan and China, and most importantly, how to make lifelong Chinese friends and business partners. Until then…

再见(zaijian)! Goodbye!