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Chinese companies have no silos. Two lessons on language and leadership coaching.


If you work or have ever worked in a Chinese company, you might think that the above statement is nonsense. Bitter experience may seem to have taught you otherwise. However, in the making of subtitles for my 3-minute video (3 Minutes/3 Languages), I discovered that the above sentence in Chinese was absurd to a Chinese speaker. In haste, I cut and pasted a sentence which used the word "筒仓" (tǒng cāng) cylinder + storehouse - what one would expect to find on a farm rather than a bank.

That is not to say that there are no communication problems within Chinese companies...only that they would simply be referred to as "交流断层 " (jiāo liú duàn cénɡ) - broken down into syllables or characters, this would come out as "exchange" + "flow"+ "broken" + "layers" what Westerners might call communication gaps. A Chinese friend of mine kindly brought my mistake to my attention and I avoided an awkward translation.

Lesson No. 1

has nothing to do with admonishing myself for relying on an online translation applications! They are too convenient and certainly more portable than huge and heavy dictionaries that sit collecting dust on my bookshelves!

The lesson learned has more to do with a more insidious tendency to "cut and paste" our perception of events and mistake it for "reality".

My belief is that our worldview is deeply rooted in how we make sense of the world through 'thought' and our thoughts are tied to our language, which in turn, has a strong connection with our home culture. (I discuss this point en français in my video.)

All languages have "holes"... no matter how rich or nuanced we may secretly feel our own mother tongue to be. A "hole" is a concept or terms which cannot easily be expressed in another language. Anyone who has tried to translate a document on management from English to French is painfully aware of this problem.

There are dozens of terms ("brainstorming" "feedback", "leadership") that the French have simply taken from English because there is no simple way to express the concept. This void is significant. Lack of a word/concept means that a behavior (such as brainstorming) will take more time and patience to encourage a practice to actually take root in a culture has no fertile soil for it. As a leadership coach, I take a keen interest in unwrapping the language that makes up stories.

Lesson 2.

Be aware of abstraction -- or should I say "Beware of abstraction"?

To what extent is abstract thought appreciated in the target culture? While in France a good philosophical debate is a sign of one's social status and his or her ability to think clearly. Yet very detailed or speculative reasoning rarely makes a good impression on a potential business partner or client from China or Japan. After years of language fumbling, I have discovered that stepping into a world of theory often makes people from other cultures downright uncomfortable. This became clear to me the first time I was asked to debrief a coaching assessment which had been Google Translated into Chinese. It was full of words which exist theoretically...but which no one really uses. As a rule of thumb, when speaking in Chinese with clients, I make an effort to say things in a very straight forward manner. In terms of building rapport...simplicity and vulnerability brings trust!


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