When I haven’t spoken to someone for a while or am meeting someone new who learns about my background, they will often ask what’s it like working on the other side. My admission to this: sometimes, this job is awesome.
Are there frustrations? Absolutely! But here are a few of the perks: I get to meet new people, see awesome old (ish) friends, talk about things that are cutting edge and interesting, help people do their jobs better, and travel to some pretty cool places.
Last December, I went on an adventure to China, and from the perspective of a certified forensic interviewer (who loves to observe behavior), the main takeaway is that people are the same no matter where you go.
Another takeaway: when you don’t speak the native language, you will need to read behavior.
First off, China was fascinating. People ask me what the food, traffic, pollution, and so on were like. Where I traveled, the food was great (but I passed on the chicken feet), the traffic was awful, and yes, there was lots of pollution. China is a vast country and I only visited a few parts, so it’s hard for me to generalize an entire country based on my trip. It’d be like someone from China coming to New York and saying the entirety of the United States is just like New York. I barely scratched the surface.
We started our trip in Guangzhou on the southeast coast of China and ended in Shanghai on the eastern coast, with the objective to tour factories and discuss current and potential products. My first impression of Guangzhou was the sheer amount of active construction: it was almost like an angry toddler had thrown buildings down that continued to grow where they were. There was development everywhere!
Most places we went, the people we encountered were hospitable and helpful. The first factory we visited was clean and modern, and we were welcomed by the factory manager. I was surprised at the warmth of our reception; perhaps I was expecting a more closed-off attitude based on what I had read about the government controls and current business climate, but it was quite the opposite. I felt safe wherever we went, the high-speed transportation and roads were excellent, and I didn’t encounter a single rude person. It would be hard to say the same thing traveling in Chicago!
My main issue, if pressed to find one, would be that I did not understand the language. Most of the people we met spoke English very well; however, there were times that they spoke Chinese at length during business meetings and we were left at the mercy of an interpreter after the aside was finished. I’m pretty sure much was lost in translation.
During our visit, there were many, many times that Chinese was the main language being spoken and, it cannot be overstated, I was very glad for my prior training in observing behavior. With each conversation in Chinese, my frustration grew, and I began to listen and observe in a more heightened state because I needed to know something, anything, about what was being discussed. Here are a few key items I picked up on:
- Filler words told me to observe and listen more closely. I picked up on a single word used over and over and that usage, combined with some more animated body language, indicated to me that the speaker was feeling some stress. Just like in interviewing, the timing of the behavior was important. This was during a phase of our negotiation that was becoming difficult, and when I heard the filler word repeated, along with some agitation, I knew we were bargaining from a position of power.
- Eye contact, whether maintained or broken and depending on the timing, was also a strong indicator. Since I was not directly involved in the negotiation, only an observer, I found the Chinese speakers would look to me quite often to try and see how I was reacting. They weren’t sure why I was there, and I thought they might have been trying to get me to react to help them. Again, this led me to believe that they were feeling pressure and were looking for someone in the room to help them out. I tried to maintain a friendly but neutral expression during our talks. I also found the neurolinguistics to be similar to what I had seen before in the United States, with internal dialogue (looking downward, studying hands, phone, or papers) being the most common trait I saw on my brief trip. I do need to point out that some of my behavior could have very easily been causing theirs. Since I am naturally fairly direct and was making a lot of eye contact just out of habit, this may have been something they weren’t used to and could have caused them to alter their behavior. Not sure, but it’s a possibility.
- Because they were speaking to one another in their own language, and assumed quite rightly that we didn’t speak Chinese, their conversation became much livelier than it would have if we spoke the same language. This actually led to the factory owners revealing much more about how they felt than they probably would have otherwise. They became emotional in their sidebar conversations, and I’d bet a million yuan that they wouldn’t have reacted that way if they thought one of us could understand the language!
- On a similar note, there were a few times that we were told meeting attendees couldn’t speak English, yet at the end of our meeting they spoke quite fluently. This was probably due to a level of embarrassment at their ability to converse, but it’s important to keep in mind when having our own sidebar conversations. I compare it to my abilities with Spanish: I’m definitely not fluent and wouldn’t even say I can speak the language, but I’ve had enough classes that I can pick up a lot from others’ conversations. Just another thing to be aware of when talking about business in a group such as this.
- I found it was easier to read body language when an interpreter or translator was being used. For me, the reason was that I could focus purely on the reaction to what was said and not worry about what was coming out of my mouth. It was like watching an interview in slow motion and therefore so much easier to read the reactions.
These are just a few days’ worth of observations and definitely not enough to come to any firm conclusions on an entire society’s behavioral cues. However, after my visit I feel strongly that it is possible to read body language everywhere you go: you just have to listen and keenly observe what’s going on around you.
All people have tells and physical reactions to conversation; sometimes it can be even more exaggerated depending on the circumstances and comfort level of that moment. You just need to stay focused on the other person, and you can learn a lot.
Stefanie is a regular contributor to the work of the International Association of Interviewers. To enjoy other great content from her and other contributors, please visit CertifiedInterviewer.com