The Cultural Differences You Should Know before Doing Business in China

Last Updated November 29, 2021

Over the years, we’ve conducted various speech-related data collection business in China, and the experience has been quite rich.

In one project, for example, we invited 600+ native Mandarin speakers to come and record for an emerging speech recognition program. In another, we required over 200 people to record navigation-related commands for in-car speech recognition.

For both, our task was to record testers’ utterances so that our data could be used for further speech recognition software development. We hired local vendors to help execute the projects, and we were on-site to instruct and supervise during both projects.

Through it all, we learned lessons about how to collect speech data at scale, and observed some differences between doing business in North America and in China.

Here’s some of what we learned.

Keep The Process Open

In China, it’s not uncommon for people to begin working on a project before they fully work through the details or complexities.

We noticed people seemed frustrated by to detailed instructions, but it’s not a sign of carelessness by any means. Rather, it was a sense of feeling micromanaged and a desire to work it out in process.

Pushing people to read a workflow or checklist can therefore be difficult. They may take it as a sign of mistrust or underestimation of intelligence.

Try to give some space (which we all need from time to time) and collaborate or clarify when necessary.

Give Notice When Things Change

Since we had some last-minute changes, both projects started later than we had originally planned. When our vendor found out about the delay, they were quite frustrated, which is totally understandable.

We try as best we can to plan ahead, work out the best schedule, and develop a smooth process. But no amount of preparation or experience can mitigate all obstacles. Sometimes unexpected changes arise, and the game plan suddenly changes.

What seems like a natural part of doing business to us may cause significant stress to non-western vendors that are not used to a fast-paced work environment.

It’s a good idea to warn vendors ahead of time if your project is dynamic or at risk of sudden change.

Plan for Lunch Breaks

Traditionally, lunch in China is almost as sophisticated as dinner.

You have a big meal, and it takes time. You can even take a quick nap after their lunch. Schools and businesses typically have noon break for around 1.5 hours to 2 hours.

This is slowly changing as western lifestyle is influencing Chinese culture. In smaller cities, however, lunch breaks will still take much longer than what we’re accustomed to in North America.

This should be considered when recruiting and preparing schedules.

Beware of Political, Legal & Economic Differences

We prepared a carnet to ensure that our computers could be shipped into China without trouble, but as it turned out, a signature was missed on one of the forms when the package left the U.S.

The lesson? Always, always, ALWAYS double check your paperwork.

Clearing a package through Chinese customs isn’t as simple as it is in Western countries. We consulted a couple of clearance agencies that prepared documents and letters for Customs of China.

Unfortunately, all the paperwork in the world couldn’t release our computers in time.

Although it is a big and actively developing country, it still has unique political and economic systems. Don’t be surprised if what works smoothly in western countries is a bit of a bumpy road in China.

Listen to Your Vendor

We didn’t officially start recruiting until we finalized our location and had a starting date.

At first, we didn’t understand why we couldn’t begin recruiting participants ahead of time… that’s what we did in Canada after all. Our vendor explained that there are many fraud job postings in China.

The most rampant ones in South China are multi-level marketing scams, which are illegal. Consequently, people are very hesitant when applying for part-time jobs.

The vendor mentioned that if we changed the location or time after an initial job post, people would likely suspect it as some illegal group trying to avoid the police.

If we were to be flagged, it would be very difficult to clarify and convince participants that this is a legitimate job opportunity.

Remember to remain open to your vendor’s advice.

As with all international projects, being sensitive and aware of cultural differences will dictate the success of your project. North American businesses coming into China need to be adaptable.

Setting predefined expectations of how the project will be run ahead of time will help local vendors grow accustomed to differences in doing business with a company from a different country.

Doing International Business?

Here at Summa Linguae Technologies, we have developed sound digital media localization strategies for China.

We can give your company’s app, website or software platform as many competitive local advantages as possible.

If you’re bringing your product or technology to a new market, get in touch with Summa Linguae Technologies to learn about our localization services.

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