I am a university professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. My students and I have some difficulty communicating the international students who arrive at my university from China. They are extremely formal and we are unable to ‘read’ their faces. Where should we start? 

In traditional Chinese culture, there are some basic moral standards, such as politeness, respect, honesty, and modesty. Zhang Shou, one of my PhD students, explains the consequences of this:

We seldom judge others in person, and we would never openly challenge them. This is particularly true when subordinates are relating to their superiors. At university in China, students are expected to respect and obey the professors, it is hard for us to contradict them. In addition, Chinese people do not use many gestures or show many expressions when they are talk, especially in some formal occasions.

In my recent teaching career I have had many Chinese students: here in Italy where I work; in Wuhan where I taught a few months before the outbreak of the virus; and online with Chinese high school students through https://www.oxfordglobal.org/. Below are some of my thoughts, that were originally published in:

Conducting Business Across Borders: Effective Communication in English with Non-Native Speakers

I should also point out that I am a cultural ambassador to China and love the country.

Understand their perspective

This means that you as a professor and also your students may initially find Chinese students somewhat inscrutable: their politeness and respect, combined with a lack of expression on their faces (or at least no expression that we in the West are able to recognize without practice), makes communication quite difficult.

The result is that such students may become rather excluded from the rest of the class simply because the others don’t know how to engage with them. This is even more true so for Chinese students who are on their very first experience outside their country and thus may not have been able to pick up communication tips on their travels.

These communication difficulties are further compounded by the Chinese English accent. While their level of English tends to be high, some (but far from all) are hard to understand given the considerable difference in accent between a Chinese English accent, and the English accent of a European or South American.

Chinese students have commented to me that often they began talking and within a couple of minutes the heads of their interlocutors turn away. The Chinese put this down to the fact that what they are saying is not arousing the interest of their listeners. However, it is more likely that their accent in English interferes with comprehension and their interlocutor simply fails to follow them.

What can you do?


Explain to your student that respect comes in very different formats, but that constant politeness and agreement with what you are saying may actually end up forming a barrier and a sense of distance between you. The whole idea of academia is for people to share ideas and question those ideas, but excessive respect and attempts at harmony are not necessarily conducive to such an outcome. So although their traditional way of giving respect is fine on first meetings, you can suggest that there are also other signs of what in the West we would consider to be showing respect – participating actively in class, doing assignments on time, asking the professor questions even after class, joining fellow students in social activities, etc.

Also be aware that many students may be showing you respect by not ‘troubling’ you with questions – the idea being that you are more ‘important’ than them and they don’t want to be seen as wasting your time. Finally, from a very early age many Chinese are taught to remain completely silent when the teaching is explaining something, and this kind of conditioning carries on into later academic and professional life.


A very strong or unfamiliar accent is a real hurdle to communication, especially when the speaker is giving little or nothing away from the expression on their face. Apart from suggesting that the students should have pronunciation lessons, you can learn ways to become familiar with the kind of mistakes they make. Be aware that we may tend to think that all Asians from the Far East have the same pronunciation issues, so that we think that the basic difficult for the Chinese is the R which they replace with the L. But such L/R confusions rarely have a catastrophic effect on our understanding. More difficult are the unexpected ones such as the Chinese difficult with the consonant V – the words previous or advanced said by a Chinese can be almost impossible to decipher. So one solution is to do your own research on this, and find websites that the explain the difficulties the Chinese have and learn to interpret or guess what they are trying to say. A good website to start you off: http://englishspeaklikenative.com/.

Facial expression

The Chinese are not used to expressing much emotion or many words when meeting someone for the first time. In fact within their own culture, someone who is overly friendly or talks a lot about themselves is considered to be bragging or insincere. This might obviously be perceived as insincerity in an Anglo culture too, but the difference in China is that the threshold is much lower. So in order to avoid being perceived as being talkative, and in a culture that believes very much in silence and in listening, their faces can be quite impassive. It is very hard to understand whether they are following you, let alone agreeing with you. This is compounded by the fact that the Chinese talk a little longer than we do in breaking the ice, and it may take between 2-4 meetings before they open up more. This reticence or bashfulness should not be confused with mistrust or suspicion or slyness.

Adrian Wallwork

Photos AW. Bejing clothes shop 2019, Bejing medical center 2019

Categories: Countries