When dealing with Asian businesses, this common word can take on many shades of meaning. It pays to know them.
by Mia Doucet
The Chinese often answer with a very quick “yes” whenever you ask a question. This happens even when we know they haven’t thought about the question long enough to even answer. Why do they say “yes” when they can’t possibly mean it, and what do you do when this happens?
If you do business in the Asia-Pacific region, you have no doubt encountered this situation. Confusion often arises over the word “yes” in response to our questions. We tend to assume that “yes” means “I agree,” as it does in Western culture. This can have serious consequences in any communication, and not just when negotiating international sales agreements.
Poor cross-cultural communication causes misunderstandings, delays, and decreased productivity. Worse, misinterpreting the Y word causes feelings of betrayal. Cultural clashes affect the heart of your Asian business.
Context is important, because when an Asian says “yes,” it can mean any number of things. Sometimes it means maybe. Sometimes “yes” may only be a sign of respect, a signal that you have been heard. Sometimes “yes” may even mean “no.”
There is no intended deception. “Yes” is simply a more complicated word in Asian culture.
Several Asian cultural factors come into play with the word “yes.” Culture affects every business conversation, and not just the formal negotiation that secures the sale.
Most Chinese people, especially those who don’t have a lot of opportunity to talk with English speakers, use a sound (“yeah,” “yes,” or “oh”) to keep the conversation going.
It does not mean “I get what you’re saying.” It does not signal agreement. It just means “I’m listening.”
Where there is confusion, they feel that if they can keep you talking long enough, then there is a good chance they will finally get your meaning. So hear it as acknowledgment that you have asked a question, and not as a response to your question.
In the Chinese culture, it is considered an honor to be asked to do something. People are happy to help and eager to prove that they are the best able to assist. Eagerly saying “yes” will deepen the trust you have placed in them.
Knowing this will prevent a feeling of distrust from developing when we encounter a “yes” that comes too quickly by Western standards.
Where there is a risk of losing face (yours or theirs) the Chinese will often pretend to understand your meaning. This happens surprisingly often, and is due to the language barrier—especially when other Chinese are also present. The one who is supposed to have the best grasp of the English language may feel ashamed at not understanding your question. And, by an interesting cultural twist, your unclear communication has the potential to cause you loss of face.
A Chinese engineer who negotiated multimillion dollar deals for integrated software systems across China explained the thought process: “Usually, in our culture, the Chinese pretends to understand. I can’t always say, ‘Sorry, sorry, I don’t understand,’ or I will lose face. The Westerner will think, ‘Why can’t you understand?’ So I just fake to understand. I say, ‘Yes, yes.’ If I can do that, I give you face.
“Even among Chinese people, where they use the same language, they like to say ‘yes’ during the conversation.”
While it is bad manners to reject directly, indirect communication is totally acceptable. The meaning of “yes” becomes ambiguous. The word may then mean any number of things, including “maybe,” “back up,” “I’m thinking,” “give me time to prepare,” “you’ve got to be kidding,” or “let me get back to you with an answer.”
Some people greet the world with a “yes,” some with a “no.” Some cultures do the same.
In the “can do” Chinese culture, the first response is always “yes.” The easiest thing in the world is for a Chinese to say “yes,” and then figure out how to do the thing later.
This is one of the ways that Chinese differ from Japanese. The Japanese will tend to first respond in the negative. But that is the subject of another conversation.
A NEUTRAL CONSTANT
The Asian “yes” is an automatic, habitual response. It almost never means “yes.” For that reason, consider it a neutral constant. Train yourself to not hear “yes” as meaning agreement.
Make it mean nothing in your mind, until you have had a chance to confirm what “yes” means in the specific context of your conversation.
Small changes in the way we communicate will have a huge impact on our success with Asian colleagues, customers, and suppliers.
Mia Doucet is a coach, consultant, and trainer who advises clients, mainly technical people, how to support a company’s sales efforts. She can be reached through her Web site, www.miadoucet.com.