Chinese Vocabulary for Business – Language Landmines to Avoid

chinese vocabulary“Up your bottoms!” toasted the Chinese host to his English business guests. Of course, he meant to say “Bottoms up!” according to Wikipedia, which cites this embarrassing word blunder as an example of Chinglish. This language slip may also explain why the Chinese prefer to have meetings in Chinese. To prepare for your Chinese business meeting, it is easy and convenient to start to Learn Mandarin Chinese Online. As an English speaker doing business in China, you should also be aware of a few basic language traps to avoid offending your business partners, or worse, losing a deal.

Most people learn Chinese using Pinyin – a Chinese writing system that uses the Western alphabet to spell Chinese words phonetically. Pronunciation is more challenging. Chinese is a tonal language that uses four tones to distinguish the meanings of syllables with the same spelling. For an introduction or quick review, refer to Chinese Phrases: Learning the Basics.  This article also provides a good overview of key travel phrases for the airport, directions and hotel.

You have made it through the airport and to your hotel with this helpful list of phrases. Now it is time for your first business meeting. The Chinese prefer to conduct all meetings in Chinese. Your business associates may have working knowledge of English or be accompanied by a translator. Ask in advance about the English-language skills of those attending the meeting. It is often best to arrange for your own interpreter.  Bring Chinese-language copies of all materials.

Your meeting will be more successful if you can speak some Chinese. If you are in a crunch, some survival Chinese for beginners may get you through the meeting. There are lots of online resources to learn Chinese vocabulary for business. Even with basic vocabulary, with over 15 million words in the Chinese language and a love of word play with opposites, it is easy to get into a linguistic mix up.

Chinese Business Titles

Chinese business titles set the protocol for meetings. Be familiar with basic titles. Decorum and respect are very important in Chinese culture. You want to ensure you do not mistake the analyst who came to the meeting to take notes with the chairman of the board who decided to join your meeting at the last minute. It is proper form to address people with their business titles, Chairman Smith. All interactions should place rank first.

Chairman of the Board – dǒngshìhuìzhǔxí
Vice President of the Board – fù dǒng shì zhǎng
Board Director – dǒngshì
President – zǒngcái
Executive Vice President – zhíxíng fùzǒngcái
CEO – shǒuxí zhíxíngguān/zhíxíng zǒngjiān
COO – shǒuxí yíngyùnguān/yíngyùn zǒngjiān
CFO – shǒuxí cáiwùguān/cáiwù zǒngjiān
CTO – shǒuxí jìshùguān/jìshù zǒngjiān
CMO – shǒuxí yíngxiāoguān/yíngxiāo zǒngjiān
Manager – jīnglǐ
Director – zhǔguǎn
Consultant – gùwèn
Analyst – fēnxīshī
Intern – shíxíshēng

Special Chinese Vocabulary

There are many special Chinese terms that refer to the market structure and business practices in China, and some will inevitably pop up in your meeting. The most well-known and one of the most important is the concept of the Chinese business relationship, guangxi. Your business partners will be impressed when you understand the intricacies of their business market.

tier 1/tier 2 cities – yī xiàn /èr xiàn chéng shì

state-owned enterprises (SOE) – guó yǒu qǐ yè

Chinese Vocabulary That is Off Limits

Stay away from culturally and politically sensitive subjects. Take the dǎjiàngyóu approach – a popular Internet term for ‘none of my business.’

Mainland China – is an indirect reference to Taiwan. The Chinese do not want to be defined by Taiwan.

Taiwan – Do not refer to Taiwan as part of China, nor should you refer to it as an independent Taiwan.

Communism – There are many do’s and don’ts in terms of what communist topics and political leaders can be discussed without offending the Chinese. The best advice is to stay away from politics.

No – The Chinese do not like to say ‘no’ directly. They will choose a diplomatic and non-offensive way to refuse an offer. Listen carefully, and do not push too hard on ‘maybes’ or ‘we’ll see.’ At the same time, do not pose questions that force the Chinese to say no. Nodding of the head signals attentiveness not agreement.

Thank you – Do not say thank you. Instead, use the more indirect ‘not at all’ or ‘it was nothing.’

Trending Chinese Business Vocabulary

Keep up-to-date on new Chinese and Chinglish terms. Many of these terms originate in the online world, a fast growing business sector. China has surpassed the US for the number of Internet users. These net terms eventually make it into marketing plans and promotions.

Tuhao  refers to the uncouth or tacky new rich, or the nouveaux riches, in China. The term has been associated with the buyers of the gold Apple iPhone 5S. Several English dictionaries are considering adding it.

Big V 大V Big Vs are active Weibo users with millions of fans.

Big mama 大妈are middle-aged Chinese women who are bargain hunters.

Antizen – is one of many examples of English influence on Chinese. Antizen refers to college students living in small apartments and making a modest living.

Niubility  meaning excellent, demonstrates the more common trend of adding English suffixes to change a Chinese word. Here the adjective excellent ‘niubi’ becomes the noun excellent or awesomeness. Chinglish words are being added to Chinese and English dictionaries.

Gěilì – is a Chinese slang word that has come to mean ‘awesome’ and is being used in popular culture and brand marketing. English derivations are ‘gelivable’ and ‘ungelivable.’

Shanzhai – meaning counterfeit consumer goods, is an example of a Chinese word whose meaning has changed to describe the business trend of imitation and pirated brands. It also means ‘mountain village.’

Chinese Opposites

Chinese opposites can cause a lot of misunderstandings if you are not aware of them in advance. If you ask when a project completion due date is, and your Chinese partner responds – huǎnjí – he does not mean no hurry. He means – unhurried-urgent, which means it is important but not urgent. Yinyang is the most well-known opposite. Opposites are not antonyms but rather two sides of a spectrum whose meaning is somewhere in between the two. Here are a few more of these confusing words:

Zhēnjiǎ   true – false (veracity)

Chángduǎn  long – short (length)

Kuàimàn fast – slow (speed)

Dàxiǎo big – small (size)

Duōshǎo many – few (how many)

Dòngjìng move – still (activity)

Zhǎngsuō rise – fall (fluctuation)

Shàngxià, up-down – about/approximately (amount)

To ensure there is no misunderstanding, ask your Chinese partner to quantify everything. Is a long-short deadline two weeks or two months from now?

Many more examples of these Chinese language landmines in business can be found online.

Words alone cannot pick up the nuances of Chinese business. One of the most important Chinese language courses you can take if you are doing business in China is Negotiate Successfully in China. Understanding Chinese negotiating language, styles and sources of power is a tool you can use in every business interaction. The best way to learn is to use the language and make a few language guffaws in meetings. With practice, you will be gěilì – (awesome!)