Lucia Hau-Yoon has spent nearly 30 years teaching Africans the art of mastering business dealings with the Chinese.
A crucial part of this strategy is learning the language and helping them avoid gaffes and misunderstandings that could scuttle deals and harm working relationships.
It’s no easy feat though when it comes to the Mandarin language where tone and pitch are essential.
Hau-Yoon recounts hearing one of her students saying what he thought was “I want to ask you something,” in Mandarin, however, his intonation meant that he said “I kiss you,” instead.
Improving communications with Chinese business partners is at the top of the agenda for Hau-Yoon and her team at the Mandarin Training Center in Johannesburg, South Africa’s capital.
Hau-Yoon says she set up the training center in response to the increasing demand for Chinese cultural awareness by Africans who work with partners from China – an indication of how influential China has become in Africa in the past two decades.
According to a report by McKinsey & Company there are presently more than 10,000 Chinese businesses operating in different countries on the continent, including Ethiopia, South Africa, and Kenya.
And in infrastructure alone, Chinese firms claim approximately 50% of Africa’s internationally contracted construction market, the report said.
Hau-Yoon believes this presence has made it imperative for local organizations to build long term working relationships with Chinese investors.
And part of doing so involves more than just closing deals, it requires having an understanding of the Chinese business protocol too.
“I think a lot of Westerners or people from South Africa are too anxious to make deals happen. They meet the Chinese and hope that after one or two hours talk they can sign contracts, which is impossible,” she told CNN.
“It’s about all the other things. Eating, drinking, talking and small talks to get to know each other.”
This need to better understand Chinese people in business is why IMS Engineering and its partners in South Africa send their teams to Hau-Yoon’s center.
“We wanted to build a partnership approach by getting a better understanding of differences in culture, avoiding misunderstandings that can so easily arise when people have different cultural norms,” Paul Bracher, the managing director at IMS told CNN.
Bracher says the Chinese are respectful and appreciative of efforts to better understand their language and culture.
And it’s not a one-way street, some of their Chinese partners have also put in the effort to learn about South African culture, he says.
China in South Africa
Jacky Liu runs the China International Travel Agency South Africa, and switches easily between Chinese and African etiquette and norms, thanks to living in South Africa for more than two decades.
But the profile of Chinese travelers has changed over the years as business opportunities continue to lure more people to the continent.
“The business traveler is becoming more…. and more we see more percentage rising than the normal tourist. Chinese business travelers come here more now because both countries are economically related. Big enterprises from China invest in South Africa, so they send a lot of officials to do business,” he said.
While the Chinese economy has lost steam and growth is slowing, Liu said it hasn’t affected business delegations wanting to come to South Africa.
“The concern is maybe for the normal tourists but not for the business travelers,” he said. “The business travelers, between the China-US trade war, they may find more opportunities in Africa.”
And the hope is as the eastern powerhouse drives opportunities across Africa, they both create a deeper understanding of each other’s values and overcome language and cultural barriers so investments pay off.