When We Are the Foreigners: Book Guides Americans Who Work with Chinese



  • Nuances between "can, could, may, might, must, would, and will" often cause misunderstandings in meaning and tone for non-native English speakers.
  • The contrast between the Chinese tendency toward humility and the American tendency toward confidence can lead to bruised feelings and miscommunication.

Co-author Haiping Tang

When We Are the Foreigners: What Chinese Think About Working With Americans is a collection of eight short case scenarios from mainland China that were designed to help readers assess the cultural factors that come into play when North American business professionals work with Chinese.

co-author Haiping Tang

In preparation for these cases, we (myself and my co-authors, John Doggett and Haiping Tang, left) interviewed CEOs and employees from dozens of companies in China, from multinational corporations to small local startups. We asked them simply to tell their story about their experiences in working with North Americans. After each case scenario, we include additional comments, observations, and recommendations from both American and Chinese professionals who have experience working with one another.

Chapter Seven focuses on some of the language issues that arise when Chinese have to use their non-native English to communicate with Americans:

Native speakers of Chinese often have troubles with the nuance of words like “can, could, may, might, must, would, and will.”…Most of the team that works with Hong Shi is composed of young graduates from local universities in Beijing, mostly from Peking University and Tsinghua University. As such, they have not had the advantage of spending extended periods of time in English-speaking countries. Generally, their English is functional, but not always polished.

For example, a week prior, one of his engineers, Zhenchun Li, wrote in a memo that he “wanted an upgrade.” The accounting office responded by saying, “Sorry, there isn’t one.” The truth is Zhenchun Li meant to say that he “needed” an upgrade. For native speakers of Chinese, the difference between “want” and “need” is a little more problematic.

Recently, Hong Shi noted that another of his engineers wrote in an e-mail, “I must have a new workstation.” What he really meant was it would be nice to have a new workstation. So besides saying “must” when Chinese really mean “would like to,” they also say “should” when they really mean “must.” Hong Shi [says] that this is not a trivial matter. “It all adds up to miscommunications with others who do not understand where the native speakers of Chinese are coming from.”

This case scenario continues with other examples of miscommunication due to language issues. At the end of the chapter, three Americans and three Chinese offer their observations and recommendations about these topics. Oliver Han, one of the Chinese executives, shared his insights:

When I was in college, we organized an academic conference, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Technology Seminar.” Another student and I went to the airport to pick up a foreign professor who was attending the conference. My colleague began by apologizing for her limited English: “I’m sorry that my English is not very good. I hope you will pardon me for any inconvenience it will cause.” She then began to explain the history of [the city of] Xi’an to this professor, all in English, which, to tell you the truth, sounded pretty good to me. During the conversation, the professor said that he knew a lot about China, and he mentioned that he could speak Chinese. Then he said some Chinese words: “Hello,” “thank you,” and “good-bye.” So she was saying that her English was bad, but she could explain the history of Xi’an in English, and he was saying that his Chinese was good, but all he could say were a few words. It’s a really good example of Eastern and Western cultural differences.

So back to how to solve the communication problem. We need more of a bridge—people…who can introduce the culture to others. We need more people who are willing to go abroad. At the same time, we need to invite more people to China. Even more than a bridge, we need people to share their experiences. For example, Hong Shi should follow up and teach his employees about the difference between “need” and “want.” Jiabin can share good examples with everyone, helping all to learn and understand. And Qinmu can share with colleagues that words like “drawer” can mean drawer, bit it can also mean underwear, for example! Next, we should be bold enough to expose our problems so that we all know how to improve. After we take a few steps and make some mistakes, we need the “experts” who can identify our problems and help us improve…. Someone from either culture can never expect to totally understand the cultural background of another, but what we can do is keep working on it and try to integrate.

Elizabeth Faber offers her American perspective about this case:

I have my own grammatical traps to add to Hong Shi’s experiences with huì. One lesson I learned—the hard way, I might add—is the difference between “I could” in Chinese and English. When a native Chinese speaker replies to a request with wǒ kěyǐ, or “I could,” I found it is best to interpret this answer as “no” or even “no way.” Once I was tuned into this, I would even notice a distinct pause, followed by an inhalation of breath through the clenched teeth before the reply was reluctantly offered. These are all red flags that the spoken answer in Chinese and English is not the same.

Conversely, the Chinese adjective bù cuò, or “not bad” or “not incorrect,” was considered an overwhelmingly positive reply, much more so than its English counterpart. So if a native Chinese speaker heard a native English speaker assess a situation as “not bad,” he should be on alert, as “not bad” in Chinese tends to mean more good than bad, whereas English is the reverse. This difference is indicative of the humble nature of Chinese and the superlative nature of Americans.

A variety of tactics can be deployed to uncover these unintended miscommunications. First and foremost is to allow time for them to be uncovered. Rushed meetings and conference calls are fertile ground for missed connections, the magnitude of which will continue to grow if left unchecked. Plan to spend more time in conversations and, whenever possible, have these dialogues in person, in a one-on-one setting. You will learn much more in individual discussions than in group meetings, and far more in a face-to-face discussion than via a conference call. Repeat what you thought you heard your counterparts say, and ask them to confirm. Follow up with written e-mail communication to reconfirm agreements. Then, most importantly, monitor actions. Even if you did all the right things—like having a one-on-one, face-to-face meeting and reconfirming understanding verbally and via e-mail—there are no guarantees. Check in with your colleagues to make sure their actions are the same as your words. Expect them to do the same. Effective communications between multiple cultures requires time and effort, but not as much as ineffective communications!

The presentations in the book work especially well as a primer for students and professionals who are going to work and interact with Chinese.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

Faculty in this Article

John Doggett

Senior Lecturer McCombs School of Business

John N. Doggett is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management. He received his B.A. from Claremont Men’s College, his J.D. from Yale Law...

John Doggett teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

About The Author

Orlando Kelm

Associate Director, Business Language Education - Center for International Business Education and Research , McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin

Orlando R. Kelm (柯安良) holds degrees from Brigham Young and UC Berkeley, and his professional interests include the teaching of foreign language and...


#1 As a Chinese American, I can

As a Chinese American, I can attest to the communication issues. The issues especially arise, especially among first generation Chinese Americans, because for the most part, the formative years of education were in their native lands. Because of this, there is less of a chance to practice the proper use of English. The fact that most of the professors of graduate school, which is the reason that most first generation come to America, are foreigners themselves, does not help in grasping the nuances of the language. The reference to 不錯 especially made me grin and nod, having experienced it numerous times in the workplace. Thankfully, I am not first generation, so these are not issues for me.

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