What we have here is a failure to communicate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am

'Lost in translation' is a phrase all too common when mainland workers and their foreign colleagues try to communicate with each other. One-third of the Chinese responding to a survey for a Shanghai-based newspaper say they know that situation well.

Comedy and convoluted explanations were predictably among the things hardest to convey, the Touchmedia-Shanghai Daily survey of workers in four mainland cities with foreign colleagues found.

'Communication styles' was the most difficult factor to adapt to when with expatriate colleagues, one-third said. Customs and cultural differences came second, (26.1 per cent), followed by 'mentality' (20.9 per cent) and 'manners' (20 per cent).

The paper quoted a secretary with a Hong Kong-based logistics company as saying she had trouble understanding a British colleague's sense of humour.

'He loves to tell jokes, but I found most of them to be not funny at all,' Kiki Liu told the paper. 'I thought it impolite if I showed no response, so every time I just laughed stiffly.'

Even so, the paper reported that 'most Chinese staff surveyed said they were happy to work alongside foreign colleagues, and were impressed by their creativity and execution of duties'.

The findings were based on 161,000 responses to a questionnaire answered on touch screens in taxis in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

The paper did not report the survey's full findings and methodology, and declined to provide further details about its results yesterday. Touchmedia did not respond to queries yesterday.

The survey was not weighted and not necessarily representative of wider society, even though the sheer number of responses offered some anecdotal perspective.

Sean Shao, an employee in a chemicals plant working with people from both the US and South Korea, said he found 'a communications gap' between people of different cultural backgrounds.

'Americans are a lot more direct,' he said. 'If something isn't working as well as it should be, then they will want to know right away exactly what is going wrong and what the cause of the problems is.

'They don't waste time trying to ask questions tactfully, and will sometimes shout at us as if we are to blame. It can be quite upsetting to deal with that, so we sometimes feel a bit uneasy when talking to them.

'I find the Koreans' culture is much more similar to our own, though, so they are a bit easier to deal with,' Shao said.