Chinese don’t ask questions – they ask answers!

Chinese don’t ask questions – they ask answers!

Guest blog:
Peter Rasmussen (Director Larive Group China) explains why you will be more successful if you ask answers, not questions in China.

Chinese don’t ask questions – they ask answers! This may sound strange, based on what you’re accustomed to in your own culture, however when asking the Chinese about something you will be more successful if you ask answers, not questions! Already, I can see you scratching your head, so let me illustrate.

In the Chinese language, there are two basic ways to ask questions:

The first way is to state an answer to the question you want to ask and ask for confirmation. Make a statement – followed by a question word “ma” which indicates that it is a question (like if you pronounced the question mark).

The second way is to make a “multiple choice” statement, where the respondent picks the answer from amongst the possibilities you present.

Let me give you some examples. If you wanted to find out if someone has money, you would say:

“You have money QUESTION?” (ni you qian ma?)

or use the multiple-choice statement:

“You – have – not – have – money” (ni you mei you qian?)

So far so good… but now comes the next challenge. How to answer such questions? Because in Chinese there is no “yes” – and no “no”.

In Chinese there is no “YES” – and no “NO”

The words “YES” and “NO” don’t exist in Chinese.  They are neither verbalized nor are there any written characters for them. So how do you answer questions you may ask?

Instead of saying “YES” the Chinese answer positively by repeating the verb — and instead of saying “NO” they reply by adding a word for “negative” in front of the verb. Confused? Let’s take two examples:

Question: “You have – not – have – money?“

Positive answer: “Have!“ (“you”)

Negative answer: “Not have!“  (“mei you”) – with the negative word being “Mei”

Here is another example:

Question:“You tired QUESTION?” (“ni lei ma?”)

Positive answer: “Tired!” (“lei”)

Negative answer: “Not tired!” (“bu lei”) – with the negative word being “bu”

In Chinese, when you CAN – you don’t necessarily DO…

There are several ways to say “can” in Chinese. Here are 3 examples:

  1. Can you? pronounced as “ni hui ma?” (meaning “Do you know how to?”)
  2. Can you? pronounced as “ni neng ma?” (meaning “Are you in a position to?”)
  3. Can you? pronounced as “ni keyi ma?” (meaning “Are you willing to?”)

I tell you, that can be hard to handle for foreigners in the beginning. Some years back I hired a foreigner to manage one of our start-up companies in China. Let’s call him Henry. He took Chinese language classes before he started his new job. Before the end of his first week in the office he convinced me that we should change from having our own server to use a cloud service, which of course was a great thing to do.

The day before we made the migration and donated the old server to charity, the following dialogue took place between Henry and our Office Manager Lili (translated word-by-word into English):

Henry:  “Lili, you – can – not – can – make server back-up?” (ni – hui – bu – hui…)

Remember, there is no “yes” and no “no” in Chinese, so Lili repeated the verb to indicate her agreement:

Lili:  “Can!“ (hui)

The day after we got rid of the old server, Henry discovered that no back-up had been made and all our old files were lost. The following dialogue then unfolded between Henry and Lili (translated word-by-word into English):

Henry:  “Lili you why not have make server back-up?

Lili:  “But you not have tell me do!”

Henry:   “I ask you – can – not – can – make server back-up.”

Lili:  “Correct. I reply can. But you not have tell me do!”

Let me ask you: “You – have – not – have – time learn Chinese?” 

If you are operating a business in China, here is my advice to you:

“You most good spend one point-point time study Chinese! You say – good – not – good?” 

Then, do yourself the favor and answer: “GOOD!”


Partner in China

Asia Base is Larive’s local partner in China, having its office in Suzhou (near Shanghai). Asia Base is specialized in tailored market research services and could support with enterprise establishment, as well as advice on local governmental policies and regulations. Asia Base helps businesses perform better in China, through their local knowledge, network and experience.

For more info, please contact Wouter van Vliet

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