Why Chinese Don’t Reply To Many Emails…

In china business by Michael Michelini10 Comments

I remember being “on the other side”, the American in USA, not having been to China and not really understanding the daily life of a Chinese businessperson, in a Chinese office. I would get sooo annoyed when people wouldn’t reply to my emails. And I’ll admit it, I had that common misunderstanding that China was still rice fields and farmland….maybe I thought they didn’t have many computers to reply from, shared computers or something?!?! I was really confused.

Even after taking a business trip here in to Asia (hit Hong Kong first) it didn’t fully sink in to how a daily business day really transacted, as I was rushing around factory to factory, city to city. Not until I really started working here, building up my office, watching how my staff worked, watching how other offices got work done….working inside factories….

And maybe I never thought specifically about blogging on this topic, but a business friend in USA just emailed me, and I thought I would answer publicly (Note: I changed names and edited some of it to be more general):

Mike,

I wanted to ask you about a Chinese cultural issue, if I may.

I sent the below message, as you will see, to Jack without a response back. This is my second attempt to contact him.

Here in the States we would have to conclude that we are being “blown off”, would that also be the same kind of conclusion one would assume in China.

Thanks for your input.

Regards,

Jerry

From: ‘Jerry’
Sent: Friday, July 15, 2011 10:52 AM
To: ‘Jack’
Subject: Discussion Follow-up

Jack,

Again, thank you for meeting me on your recent trip to the US.

I wanted to follow-up our different discussion points with you and ask you what you think the next steps should be.

Looking forward to your reply.

Regard,
Jerry

Now I have to admit, I myself hate emails, it just seems like its everyone’s answer to get things done “hey, I sent you an email, you get it?”, or, I need to reply these emails. I think its not “replying emails”, but rather its getting work done in general right…and email is a form of communication to transmit ideas and information from one person to another.

Here are my reasons why I believe maybe email is not the best form of communication, in China especially, but in general:

  • Demand to do business with China – come on, we see it in the news, I log into my finance news every day, and one of the top 5 headlines always has something about China in it. So what does this create, everyone in the west banging on China’s doors to buy something, to have some kind of “bragging right” to have at the cocktail parties that they are entering the China market. And what does this create, a lot of unnecessary emails into tons of alibaba factory directory accounts. I have looked at the “CRM” of factories…its exploding with tons of emails from all over the world of people who want to buy from them….and maybe 1% of them are serious, and 0.1% will choose this factory out of the others…..so therefore creating tons of emails in these Chinese businessman’s boxes to sift through, humanly impossible to reply to.
  • Timezone difference…..arriving to office with avalanche of emails….especially if you deal with USA business….their day is your night…and you come to your desk at 8 or 9am…and all those emails come flooding in…..a bit overwhelming to say the least.
  • Lack of management and organizational skills in Chinese educational system – What I and my fellow classmates in school used to call a waste of time, certain soft skill classes about email management, time management, people management was actually helpful. From my exposure here in China, I do not believe there educational system includes such material as these we have in the Western world. Therefore, the new graduate in school is exposed to a workworld where probably if they are doing international sales will be dealing with emails….and they probably never knew how to handle it!
  • Prefer face to face business talk – This is in tons of Chinese business books, but it is true, Chinese people really prefer to do business face to face. And to build a relationship with the person. If there isn’t that feeling of trust, as well as maybe knowing the counterparty’s family, friends, and social network diversity…they may hesitate to do business. And an email is COLD….its really hard to put feeling and passion into an email….so many times I believe I am probably misunderstood in an email by my wording, cultural tone, “American directness”.
  • Next step is phone – Maybe the below point (QQ chat) is becoming more popular, depends on generation….but again, because of feeling, tone, personality, trust, hearing a voice, as well as instant gratification of a phone call makes the Chinese business world go around. So many times I’ll get a call, day or night, with a request to have a rather last minute meeting that is urgent or not possible for the foreseeable future….making daily scheduling and planning almost a joke. Yet, the phone is the modern “business weapon” of the Chinese wild-wild-west….its a tool one cannot live without.
  • and next step is QQ chat This is a daily necessity to doing business in China….its always right next to the mobile number, you have QQ groups and QQ IDs….both personal and business…file transfers, funny cartoon animations, screenshot sharing….China would seriously be in trouble if QQ web servers were to go down…I’m sure this has been a huge key to efficiency in Chinese business.
  • Internet isn’t always so reliable – due to filtering, and basic infrastructure limitations, especially inland china where power outages are mandatory, sometimes emails just lag behind…

Hopefully this sheds some light on my fellow American businessman friends as well as the rest of those foreigners banging their heads against the desk wondering how to better get through to Chinese businesspeople.

Here are some ideas:

  • Work on different timezone sometimes – yes, international business is “sexy”, but this is one of those parts of the job that can drag…..sometimes you gotta work on their timezone. Maybe not even for phone calls, but for chat and emails….I remember being in USA and delay sending my emails to Chinese contacts until I knew it was further into their business days….just that morning overload of blast emails makes them all a blur….getting a fresh one in midday sometimes sticks out more.
  • Try different forms of communication – QQ chat has an english version, but also many Chinese have skype and MSN, some even google talk. I know chats can be distracting, and many Americans think its for high school kids, but chatting in Asia is a softer way to get through
  • Happy communicating!

  • I just helped a friend who bought a new iPhone 4 last week set it up. Step 1 was applying for an email account.

    People in Mainland China don’t grow up using email. Period. Unless the person you’re dealing with works for or has worked for a multinational corporation, chances are if they have an email address, it’s their @qq.com email address and they rarely check it.
    This is why almost every Chinese website gives you the option of using a QQ number or a mobile phone number as your login instead of an email address.

    When in doubt, call. You need to be aggressive in business…there’s no difference in this between the US and China. If the person has blown you off and doesn’t want to do business with you, calling isn’t going to change that. If they want to do business with you, they’ll be happy you called.

  • Thanks for the comment Larry, true that so many still don’t have email. I also think Americans think its crazy a factory or trading company has yahoo or hotmail or gmail accounts and not their own domain….

    The secretary in szteam refuses to get any other email besides her QQ email she says no need,

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  • JIM

    did not wantto fax at 6 pm because tux store closed
    wait till store hours on thursday
    be on right time zone when emailing
    great insight to china business

  • Katherine

    Well, in Jerry and Jack’s case, in my opion, Jack should reply the email in time. Why? Coz Jack has met Jerry during his visiting US and had some discussion. In that case, he surely know Jerry’s email is not a spam, right? So why he doesn’t reply in time?

  • Yea, the hardest part is the time zone different and the methods of communication…seems everyone has a different preferred way to communicate – some like email, some phone, some text, some chatting online….some only face to face…

    it takes flexible people to make it all come together.

  • true true….sometimes I think its just too many emails though Katherine…

  • Some great points here. I would like to add that language is also an issue with a lot of the people:

    1. The person being emailed doesn’t always speak English. Therefore, they either wait for someone who speaks better english to translate, OR dont get the point of the email and hence decide not to reply OR dont have the right words at their disposal in order to make their reply clear and understood.

  • thanks Ash for reading and the comment.

    True…I think if I were receiving Chinese emails all day and it was overloading my inbox I would get fatigue rather quickly…

    its all about perspective.. and that is the trick with international business….understanding your counterparty.

  • Hi Michael! I searched for ‘why Chinese people don’t reply to emails’ and I landed here! 🙂 I’ve lived in China for quite a while and I can definitely relate to many people’s experiences. I hate emails too. But I think it lacks common decency to simply ignore someone. If we emailed a Chinese guy telling him “hey I won a million dollars and I’m feeling generous” I’m sure we’ll hear from them in no time. Sorry, I don’t mean to generalize here but I’ve been doing business with many people from all over the world and it’s so specific to Chinese not to reply to emails. They just seem to love to keep people hanging all the time. Sometimes they even lie and say “sorry I never received your email”.