Understand Phone Habits in China
Cell phones are an integral part of Chinese society. If you’ve been, or plan to go to China, you’re going to experience the difference in our cultures when it comes to habits talking on the phone.
Below I’ll explain some dos, don’ts, and context as to how these practices came about
To summarize, you’re going to learn how to properly communicate over the phone and the habits involved.
Get off the phone and lets rock and roll!
Modern cell phone towers/service providers as we know started in 1987. From 1987 to 1994, all telecom services were provided through a state-run China Telecom.
In 1994, China started restructuring the industry continued to do so until in 2002 – basically turning a monopoly into an oligopoly. Restructuring leads to more competition, which meant better service (aka better reception) and the industry exploded. Flash forward to 2008 and the industry as a whole is a state-run oligopoly.
As of 2017, there are three dominant telecom service providers domestically in China, all state-run.
- China Mobile
- China Unicom
- China Telecom
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the industry background, Wikipedia does a nice job: Telecommunications Industry in China. Or to learn more about the mobile history, here’s a link to wikipedia as well: Mobile Phone Industry in China.
Market dynamics caused to spotty cell service (at best) for the longest time, and created interesting phone habits we don’t have the United States, which we’ll cover in a minute.
But this article isn’t about the telecom industry, it’s about you learning how to wade through the phone day to day.
On the phone
In the US, it’s pretty simple. Phone rings, “Hello?”. Done.
China is different. Chinese has a word only for picking up the phone – phonetically it sounds like “wei”.
wei= hello on the phone
I’m not old enough to know when this phenomenon started happening but it did.
Here are a few of my own renditions of the “wei”.
It’s a way to let the other side know that you’ve answered and acknowledged they are there.
Try it out yourself!
During a phone call in China, they have a habit of saying “mm” or “hm” every 5 seconds or so. Without recording an entire dialog, it sounds something like this.
As we noted above, cell reception/service used to be incredibly spotty, and calls dropped all the time. Thus, it is courteous to let the other party know that you are on the other line with them. A great way of going…mm or hm.
Don’t be alarmed or surprised if they are doing this, even in English. It can also be seen as a sign of respect for listening.
I’ve got to admit, this has been some of the most entertaining experiences with Chinese culture. To understand, you’ll need a quick Mandarin lesson.
好的 “hao de” = ok, or good, or yes.
It’s one of the most commonly used words in the Chinese language.
We all know there are ebbs and flows to phone calls, and you know you’re coming up to the end on one in Chinese when people are saying…
“hao hao hao hao hao hao hao hao” or “hao de hao de hao de”
Sounds like this:
All of this sounds funny at first but legitimately is a way to wind down phone calls. You can also get fancy and do it to let the person on the other line know “this phone call is coming to an end”.
When the phone call is coming to an end, they all speak English. “Bye bye” is the go to. I don’t know when this caught on but is widespread, amongst old and young. After moving back to the states, I realized I now even end phone calls with “bye bye”.
Fun fact: In written form, it’s 88. Did you know that?
In summary – pick up the phone with “wei”, give a lot of “mm”s during the conversation, and end with saying “hao hao hao hao” – bye bye.
Understanding their habits is more about you accepting their cultural differences when it comes to telephone communication. Below I’ll explain some of the differences you’ll experience.
People take phone calls everywhere. Even while you’re in meetings, big or small, people will pick up their mobiles. Every time the phone rings, it’s like the rest of the world must stop. It doesn’t matter if it’s the President or a number they don’t recognize, it’s a fire drill.
Culturally this is not a sign of disrespect, it’s just how their society works.
Time of Day
Phone calls happen all the time. 24×7. When we were building out our first nursery in Haining, I’d be getting phone calls at 1am from suppliers with updates. No joke.
Don’t be surprised to get phone calls on weekends/evenings either, the country is in go mode.
A big reason why they pick up the phone like it’s their last is that China doesn’t have voice mails. At the end of the call, if the other side doesn’t pick up or denies it, it just stops ringing.
Think about how much data that would be with 1.3 billion people. With a near 100% mobile penetration (29.6% on 4G as of 2016), it’s would be a TON of bandwidth.
Thank goodness for WeChat voice messages (see my previous post on WeChat messaging). Voice messages filled the gap of voice mails. If you don’t get ahold of somebody, it’s normal to leave them a voice message on WeChat. Before WeChat, I don’t know what they did…
People generally talk LOUD on the phone. Not just sorta loud, LOUD. Explained in the industry background, I think it’s due to the historical bad reception, as well as China being a noisy place.
When I set up our first office, it was one big room in a farmers house with horrible acoustics – it was a cement room with no rugs. Mr. Gu, our HR manager at the time, had a booming voice and when he was on the telephone, the whole world knew. I had to coach him to be more respectful with his voice to manage the noise pollution.
So….don’t be surprised or upset if people are talking loudly.
You’ll get plenty of spammy calls, similar to the states. Be prepared for them.
My favorite trick is to speak English only. Most of the time, they don’t understand English and is an easy way to end the call. But be nice and be thankful that it’s not your job…it’d be a tough one.
- Learn how to handle yourself on phone calls listening to the audio files above
- Prepare yourself for the unique phone habits when you go over there, or are dealing customers/clients in the states
- Practice understanding where they are coming from and why they do what they do.
Doing business with China, you’re going to learn/experience so much, and my hope is to make the transition as easy as possible for you.
I invite you to leave stories, comments, or questions below of what you’ve experienced. And if you like the content, please subscribe to my email list to be updated when new posts come out.
….hao de hao de hao hao hao, bye bye.