When targeting Asia for our business, the first problem that comes to mind is communicating with its people. Although some Chinese speak English very well, a lot of them do not. When it comes to the things that are critical to the success of our business such as selling, buying, negotiating or simply just to break the ice, we Australians are often lost. Why? Because we cannot speak their language.
Speaking Chinese (Mandarin) helps in establishing initial rapport because everyone feels warm towards a foreigner who is trying. An Australian managing director told me this anecdote. “I had to give a speech at a banquet in Beijing recently. With the little Chinese I learnt, I begun my speech in Chinese and ended likewise. You should hear the applause. When I was milling with some of the Chinese afterwards, the warmth and backslapping from them made me feel that the negotiations with the same mob the next day will not need as much rapport building time.”
For a Caucasian to speak Chinese is such a rarity that you can gain psychological kudos in the first ten minutes of meeting a Chinese. This may save you several hours of small talk and drinking twenty cups of tea. As a Chinese he will probably be thinking: “Here is Mr Charles and he is learning to speak in my language. He is serious about doing business with Chinese.”
Why learn Chinese, you may ask, as there so many different languages in Asia? What about Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese. Let us look at a few facts.
China’s population is 1.2 billion, Taiwan is 20 million, Singapore has 3.3 million and Hong Kong has 4 million. In all these countries Chinese is the official written language of business and social life.
In Korea, Japan and Vietnam the Chinese influence has been remarkable over the centuries. Consequently the writing systems of these three “Chopsticks” and Confucianist cultures have borrowed heavily from the Chinese. When you are familiar with Chinese, you can also read some Korean and Japanese, for example. As Latin is to Western languages, Chinese is to languages of the Chopsticks cultures of Asia. So if you have time for learning only one Asian language, you may as well learn Chinese.