Learning Mandarin is important but…

Language is no doubt a very important subset of culture and it augurs well if an expatriate learn up some basic langulearning chineseage in the foreign land to navigate around.  However, my own research data in China shows that while an expatriate leader may have a good command of Mandarin, the official language of China, he or she may still not demonstrate a good dose of Cultural Intelligence, or CQ™, as some of the local staff alluded to me. A leader from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia or Taiwan, or a “returning chinese”, sometimes termed as the “sea turtles,” may not necessarily have the ability to build trust relationships with the local staff at the workplace. What gives, then?

A lot of us who can speak Mandarin fluently tend to minimise the impact of the actual cultural distance between us and the local team. We think that because we are able to understand and communicate fluently in their language, we are “them” and we don’t have to do the extra legwork, such as finding creative ways to bridge the intellectual and emotional gaps that exist between us and “them.” We forget that our values systems may be different even though we may look similar and speak the same language. Worse, we forget that while we use the same language, the nuances of each word or sentence may come off completely differently and to the locals, what seem innocent may be perceived as extremely arrogant and dismissive. Consider this real-life example:

A mandarin-speaking expatriate leader said to his client, “This is a very simple problem.” It seems very straightforward and what he intended to convey is a sense of assurance for the client to undertake his proposed approach to solving the problem. However, the tone in which he used, unfortunately, was misconstrued by the client as condescending and over-simplying the problem. The client said that it made her feel stupid when the expatriate leader used the word, “Simple” in mandarin. So it looks like the old adage is true, especially in cross-cultural contexts: “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” 
Lest you turn away from this post thinking that I advocate throwing away the chinese dictionary and sacking your chinese teacher, I strongly believe that we need to have some language proficiency, the higher level the better, because that takes your conversations and relationships with the locals to an entirely different and deeper level, beyond the “ni hao” (hello) and “gei wo yi ge pi jiu” (give me a beer). I am able to have conversations with my clients that my American counterpart cannot hope to join in, and I am eternally grateful for my dad who forced me to learn Mandarin in school. Unfortunately, just counting on language proficiency alone to bring more business or build better teams in the local scene will not fly. There needs to be a concerted effort and internal motivation to want to gain local cultural knowledge, in addition to language proficiency, and then channel these knowledge clusters into meaningful and respectful gestures and behaviours that are congruent to the locals’ values system. So it seems that even for some of us who speaks the language fluently, there still exist a skills gap in translating all those cultural knowledge (including language)  into accurate interpretation and appropriate behavioural manifestations. Bridging that skills gap requires Cultural Intelligence.