Cross-Cultural Communication

What difficulties in communication do cross-cultural workers face? How can these best be addressed in various settings?

Reflection: Cross-Cultural Interaction: Partnership with Chinese Workers

WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic

April 9, 2018

by Sam Yim

According to “The Telegraph’s” headline news, China is on course to become the world’s most Christian nation within 15 years. In the same article it mentions Churches in China are planning to send their own Christian workers abroad. If this is true, then we may need to learn how to communicate well and how to partner with Chinese workers. 

Seven years ago, CNN had already done research on this topic from the business perspective. The title of the article is “Doing Business in China: Five Tips for Success.” Even though culture change is normal for every culture, China still changes slowly. In this article. the reporter mentioned that competition, corruption, business etiquette, and language are still challenges for Western business partners. These elements are more on the cultural surface, while the value of “face saving” is the kind of hidden cultural element that will take a long time for outsiders to really understand. This would be one of the “under-the-surface” elements in Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Model. However, it is not easy to interpret the Chinese worker’s mind and there may not be any short cuts. However, understanding that Chinese history reflects the impact of Confucius’ teaching will help us understand how much it still impacts the Chinese mind. 

Status vs. Equality

I grew up in Hong Kong and am now married to an American Caucasian wife. I have received theological training in Hong Kong and also from Western seminaries, and have worked with with international organizations (Western based) till now. However, my Chinese roots still greatly impact my behavior. 

In an article entitled “Why Is Confucius Still Relevant Today?” we see that the reporter’s findings are similar to what many in the Asian culture know and write about. Confucius considered community and family as very important, so as an Asian, our first priority is our own group and we are educated to take care our own people first. This is from Confucius ’s concept on Xiao, which means filial piety. We need to devote our life to our family, our community, and to our country. This reflects that Chinese have a strong bond with their own group. This means we need to support and not disagree with our group.

Hierarchy is also important and there are different titles inside the family. The role of father and the role of mother are Xiao’s concept that comes with the meaning of hierarchy. Hierarchy helps Chinese people to find their rank in the family and community. We can say it is similar to status. Penn State University published an article on Chinese Culture, “Tradition and Customs,” that reiterates that when you respect the authority, it means you fit into a hierarchical system. It’s very different from the West’s concept of partnership, where every one is an equal partner at work. If an international team member is not aware of this, a cultural clash may occur on their team. While it may take time to understand other people’s performance ways, it is also important to know their beliefs and feelings regarding title and status as well.

Cooperation vs. Individual Rights

For Westerners, individual rights are a kind of human rights. This can collapse into condemnation because the vocabulary of individualism sounds harsh to the ears of those who are not yet accustomed to the competing moral attitudes found in such terms as “co-operation,” “teamwork,” and especially, “community.” In my own experience, the root of my mother culture impacts me when I interact with my Western coworkers. As a Chinese person I will focus on respect for the leader and keeping harmony within the group, while my Western co-workers have a higher value on equality. Conflict may arise when one member desires to “inform” someone directly about “how they feel,” even if it is a leader. The tension can get high. The Westerner may see the Chinese leader as a dictator if the leader does not consult the team to make decisions. To Chinese, the strong leader is supposed to be at the top, and it is not necessary to consult someone lower than his position. 

Therefore, a group may need to have a grace period if it selects a new leader and he or she is Chinese. Team members will need to adjust to his or her leadership style, and likewise, the group will need to make sure the Chinese leader understands there is more than one way to keep the group in harmony. Sharing responsibilities may be the way to start to negotiate with one another. It is also important to find a mediator to help deal with conflict in the beginning. Direct confrontation is the way the West trains people to deal with conflict. The Western workers may need to learn to use indirect speech and allow the Asian worker not to be humiliated (to save face) if conflicts arise.

Independent vs. Co-dependent

Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” It sounds like a mentor program. Traditional Chinese live with extended family and cultural learning is transmitted through family and community. Chinese learn better together in a group setting. Chinese workers may seem more group dependent while the Westerner may value and be more focused on having an individual spirit. If we give a task to a team, it is easier for the Chinese worker to join a group in the beginning. They may feel that the group has forsaken them if they are expected to be independent from the team too soon. 

The concept of human development is so different form East and West. For example, the timing of children’s departures from the family is very different. In general, high school graduates from the West learn how to take care themselves and to be independent. Chinese children may take a much longer time to leave home and be independent. In the same way, when Westerners partner with Chinese in church planting work, the length of time for a Chinese pastor’s church to become independent should be planned differently. For example, I heard of a Hong Kong pastor who worked with American missionaries to do church planting in Hong Kong. They started from zero and gave him five years to be independent. It meant this Chinese worker would not receive any financial assistance from the Western mission group after five years. When the time was up, the Chinese worker requested that the new church needed to have more time to be independent, but the negotiation failed as plans were fixed. The Chinese church viewed the Western group as selfish and that they were forsaken too early. Therefore, any partnership needs both parties to dialogue and both parties need to be willing to adjust.


We live a small global village, and while our digital equipment may help our communication on the surface, the deeper level of partnership and communication between Chinese and the West may need more time investment. It may need more people to do research, promote, and practice how to work together better than the past. East meets West. There needs to be more work done to ensure fewer problems.

Sam Yim is from Hong Kong and holds a PhD in Education from Biola University. He now serves as an Associate Professor at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary after working in India for 22 years. His publications include “The Challenges of Culture-Based Learning” and six other books in Chinese.

Sam Yim is from Hong Kong and holds a PhD in Education from Biola University. He now serves as an Associate Professor at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary after working in India for 22 years. His publications include “The Challenges of Culture-Based Learning” and six other books in Chinese.