I just stated in my last post that language skills are not enough to succeed in business development in China. That does not mean that language skills are not important. As a matter of fact, foreigners whom rely on interpreters are at a huge disadvantage in building meaningful relationships with Chinese clients or counterparts. Imagine yourself at dinner with a close friend and needing to relay every word through a third party in order for your friend to understand you.
Firstly, your words would lose meaning and efficacy in translation. Jokes would no longer be funny and any fragments of your personality would be lost through that of the translators. It is like the game telephone, where a message begins with one person and is whispered from person to person. By the time the message is repeated aloud by the last person, it either has a totally different meaning, or the delivery lacks flair.
Secondly, no one wants to discuss their true intentions or deal complexities through a third party. To the extent that your Chinese client or counterpart wants to tell you something confidential, they certainly will not feel comfortable doing such through a third party. The Chinese are notorious for wanting to save face and would most likely not feel comfortable revealing embarrassing complexities through a third party. They would just as well not tell you at all — in which case you would have to find out the hard way.
But what if you do not have desire to learn Chinese? Or perhaps lack the ability to do so? Be yourself and allow your true personality to be conveyed. If you have a hobby, invite your prospective client to join as a learning experience. It will be memorable to them, especially if it has to do with your heritage or culture. Even if you two can’t “speak” to each other, this will allow you to display your personality without having to go through a third party.