Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton June 5, 2018

Intercultural communication within a Chinese subsidiary of a Western MNC: Expatriate perspectives on language and communication issues

  • Michał Wilczewski ORCID logo EMAIL logo , Anne-Marie Søderberg and Arkadiusz Gut
From the journal Multilingua


This study investigates Polish expatriates’ stories of encounters with local personnel in a Chinese subsidiary of a Western multinational company. A narrative analysis of the stories produced important insights into Polish-Chinese communication in an intra-subsidiary context. Low proficiency in the host language was a serious obstacle to expatriate socialization and a source of expatriates’ exclusion and social isolation in the workplace, which often led to stress, frustration, and negative attitudes toward collaboration with local personnel. Language-related issues prevented the expatriates from acquiring information from Chinese superiors, learning about problems within a team, and participating in decision-making. The findings of this case study relate to communication challenges in the Chinese subsidiary, expatriates’ accounts of how they overcame communication difficulties, and their reflections on what fostered and hampered intercultural communication.

Funding statement: This article was supported by The (Polish) Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Grant Number: ‘Mobility Plus’/1310/MOB/IV/2015/0, The (Polish) National Science Center, Grant Number: Harmonia 6/UMO-2014/14/M/HS1/00436


“to be inserted after review”


Ambos, Tina C & Björn Ambos. 2009. The impact of distance on knowledge transfer effectiveness in multinational corporations. Journal of International Management 15(1). 1–14.10.1016/j.intman.2008.02.002Search in Google Scholar

Angouri, Jo. 2013. The multilingual reality of the multinational workplace: Language policy and language use. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 34(6). 564–581.10.1080/01434632.2013.807273Search in Google Scholar

Bauer, Martin W & George D Gaskell. 2000. Qualitative researching with text, image and sound: A practical handbook for social research. London: Sage.10.4135/9781849209731Search in Google Scholar

Beaven, Tita. 2007. A life in the sun: Accounts of new lives abroad as intercultural narratives. Language and Intercultural Communication 7(3). 188–202.10.2167/laic181.0Search in Google Scholar

Björkman, Ingmar, Janne Tienari & Eero Vaara. 2005. A learning perspective on sociocultural integration in cross-national mergers. In Günter K Stahl & Mark E Mendenhall (eds.), Mergers and acquisitions: Managing culture and human resources, 155–175. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.10.1515/9781503620551-016Search in Google Scholar

Bluhm, Katharina, Bernd Martens & Vera Trappmann. 2014. Business leaders and new varieties of capitalism in post-communist Europe. London: Routledge.10.4324/9780203797341Search in Google Scholar

Bond, Michael H. 1991. Beyond the Chinese face: Insights from psychology. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Charles, Mirjaliisa. 2007. Language matters in global communication. Journal of Business Communication 44(3). 260–282.10.1177/0021943607302477Search in Google Scholar

Charles, Mirjaliisa & Rebecca Marschan-Piekkari. 2002. Language training for enhanced horizontal communication—A challenge for MNCs. Business Communication Quarterly 65(2). 9–29.10.1177/108056990206500202Search in Google Scholar

Charmaz, Kathy. 2014. Constructing grounded theory, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Search in Google Scholar

Chen, Guo-Ming & William J Starosta. 1997. A review of the concept of intercultural sensitivity. Human Communication 1(1). 1–16. (accessed 31 August 2017).Search in Google Scholar

Chen, Ling (Ed.). 2017. Intercultural communication. Handbooks of communication science. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Search in Google Scholar

Clarke, Victoria & Virginia Braun. 2013. Teaching thematic analysis: Overcoming challenges and developing strategies for effective learning. The Psychologist 26(2). 120–123. (accessed 31 August 2017).Search in Google Scholar

Cook-Gumperz, Jenny. 2009. Bernstein, educational change, and gendered language. Multilingua—Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 28(2-3). 291–307.10.1515/mult.2009.013Search in Google Scholar

Daiute, Colette & Cynthia Lightfoot (Eds.). 2004. Narrative analysis: Studying the development of individuals in society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.10.4135/9781412985246Search in Google Scholar

Eschbach, Doris M., Gerald E Parker & Philipp A Stoeberl. 2001. American repatriate employees’ retrospective assessments of the effects of cross-cultural training on their adaptation to international assignments. International Journal of Human Resource Management 12(2). 270–287.10.1080/09585190122882Search in Google Scholar

Farh, Larry J.-L & Bor-Shiuan Cheng. 2000. A cultural analysis of paternalistic leadership in Chinese organizations. In J. T. Li, Anne S Tsui & Elizabeth Weldon (Eds.), Management and organizations in the Chinese context, 84–127. London: Macmillan.10.1057/9780230511590_5Search in Google Scholar

Faure, Guy O & Tony Fang. 2008. Changing Chinese values: Keeping up with paradoxes. International Business Review 17(2). 194–207.10.1016/j.ibusrev.2008.02.011Search in Google Scholar

Froese, Fabian J. 2010. Acculturation Experiences in Korea and Japan. Culture and Psychology 16(3). 333–348.10.1177/1354067X10371138Search in Google Scholar

Froese, Fabian J., Vesa Peltokorpi & Kyung A Ko. 2012. The influence of intercultural communication on cross-cultural adjustment and work attitudes: Foreign workers in South Korea. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 36(3). 331–342.10.1016/j.ijintrel.2011.09.005Search in Google Scholar

Galasiński, Dariusz & Galasińska Aleksandra. 2008. Untold stories and the construction of identity in narratives of ethnic conflict on the Polish–German border. Silence in institutional and intercultural contexts. Multilingua 24(1-2). 101–120.10.1515/mult.24.1-2.101Search in Google Scholar

Galsworth, Gwendolyn D. 2005. Visual workplace: Visual thinking. Portland, OR: Visual-Lean Enterprise Press.Search in Google Scholar

Gamble, Jos. 2003. Transferring human resource practices from the United Kingdom to China: The limits and potential for convergence. International Journal of Human Resource Management 14(3). 369–387.10.1080/0958519022000031807Search in Google Scholar

Gertsen, Martine Cardel & Anne-Marie Søderberg. 2011. Intercultural collaboration stories: On narrative inquiry and analysis as tools for research in international business. Journal of International Business Studies 42(6). 787–804. doi:10.1057/jibs.2011.15. in Google Scholar

Graf, Andrea. 2004. Screening and training intercultural competencies: Evaluating the impact of national culture on intercultural competencies. International Journal of Human Resource Management 15(6). 1124–1148.10.1080/09585190410001677340Search in Google Scholar

Harzing, Anne-Will, Kathrin Köster & Ulrike Magner. 2011. Babel in business: The language barriers and its solutions in the HQ-subsidiary relationship. Journal of World Business 46(3). 279–287.10.1016/j.jwb.2010.07.005Search in Google Scholar

Heizmann, Helena, Anthony Fee & Sidney J. Gray. 2018. Intercultural knowledge sharing between expatriates and host-country nationals in Vietnam: A practice-based study of communicative relations and power dynamics. Journal of International Management 24(1). 16–32. doi:10.1016/j.intman.2017.06.00210.1016/j.intman.2017.06.002Search in Google Scholar

Hinds, Pamela J., Tsedal B Neeley & Catherine D Cramton. 2014. Language as a lightning rod: Power contests, emotion regulation, and subgroup dynamics in global teams. Journal of International Business Studies 45(5). 536–561.10.1057/jibs.2013.62Search in Google Scholar

Holmes, Janet. 1998. Narrative structure: Some contrasts between Maori and Pakeha story-telling. Multilingua—Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 17(1). 25–58.10.1515/mult.1998.17.1.25Search in Google Scholar

Holmes, Janet. 2005. Relational and transactional functions of workplace discourse: A socio-pragmatic perspective. In Britt-Louise Gunnarsson (Ed.), Communication in the workplace, 7–27. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet.Search in Google Scholar

Hong, Jacky F. L. & Robin S. Snell. 2008. Power inequality in cross-cultural learning: The case of Japanese transplants in China. Asia Pacific Business Review 14(2). 253–273.10.1080/13602380701314750Search in Google Scholar

Ishihara, Noriko & Julia Menard-Warwick. 2018. In “sociocultural in–betweenness”: Exploring teachers’ translingual identity development through narratives. Multilingua: Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication 37(3). 255–274. in Google Scholar

Luo, Yadong & Oded Shenkar. 2006. The multinational corporation as a multilingual community: Language and organization in a global context. Journal of International Business Studies 37(3). 321–339.10.1057/palgrave.jibs.8400197Search in Google Scholar

Mäkelä, Kristiina, Hanna K Kalla & Rebecca Piekkari. 2007. Interpersonal similarity as a driver of knowledge sharing within multinational corporations. International Business Review 16(1). 1–22.10.1016/j.ibusrev.2006.11.002Search in Google Scholar

Marschan, Rebecca, Denice E Welch & Lawrence S Welch. 1997. Language: The forgotten factor in multinational management. European Management Journal 15(5). 591–598.10.1016/S0263-2373(97)00038-8Search in Google Scholar

Marschan-Piekkari, Rebecca, Denice E Welch & Lawrence S Welch. 1999. In the shadow: The impact of language on structure, power and communication in the multinational. International Business Review 8(4). 421–440.10.1016/S0969-5931(99)00015-3Search in Google Scholar

Moran, Robert T., Philip R. Harris & Sarah V. Moran. 2007. Managing cultural differences: Global leadership strategies for the twenty-first century. New York: Elsevier.10.4324/9780080471488Search in Google Scholar

Nair-Venugopal, Shanta. 2015. Issues of language and competence in intercultural business contexts. Language and Intercultural Communication 15(1). 29–45.10.1080/14708477.2014.985304Search in Google Scholar

Peltokorpi, Vesa. 2007. Intercultural communication patterns and tactics: Nordic expatriates in Japan. International Business Review 16(1). 68–82.10.1016/j.ibusrev.2006.12.001Search in Google Scholar

Peltokorpi, Vesa. 2008. Cross-cultural adjustment of expatriates in Japan. International Journal of Human Resource Management 19(9). 1588–1606.10.1080/09585190802294903Search in Google Scholar

Peltokorpi, Vesa. 2010. Intercultural communication in foreign subsidiaries: The influence of expatriates’ language and cultural competencies. Scandinavian Journal of Management 26(2). 176–188.10.1016/j.scaman.2010.02.003Search in Google Scholar

Peltokorpi, Vesa & Eero Vaara. 2014. Knowledge transfer in multinational corporations: Productive and counterproductive effects of language-sensitive recruitment. Journal of International Business Studies 45(5). 600–622.10.1057/jibs.2014.1Search in Google Scholar

Piekkari, Rebecca. 2006. Language effects in multinational corporations: A review from an international human resource management perspective. In Günter K Stahl & Ingmar Björkman (Eds.), Handbook of research in international human resource management, 536–550. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.Search in Google Scholar

Piekkari, Rebecca, Denice E Welch, Lawrence S. Welch, Jukka-Pekka Peltonen & Tiina Vesa. 2013. Translation behaviour: An exploratory study within a service multinational. International Business Review 22(5). 771–783.10.1016/j.ibusrev.2012.12.004Search in Google Scholar

Piller, Ingrid. 2007. Linguistics and intercultural communication. Language and Linguistic Compass 1(3). 208–226.10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00012.xSearch in Google Scholar

Selmer, Jan. 1999. Culture shock in China? Adjustment pattern of Western expatriate business managers. International Business Review 8(5-6). 515–534.10.1016/S0969-5931(99)00018-9Search in Google Scholar

Selmer, Jan. 2006. Language ability and adjustment: Western expatriates in China. Thunderbird International Business Review 48(3). 347–368.10.1002/tie.20099Search in Google Scholar

Selmer, Jan & Jakob Lauring. 2015. Host country language ability and expatriate adjustment: The moderating effect of language difficulty. International Journal of Human Resource Management 26(3). 401–420.10.1080/09585192.2011.561238Search in Google Scholar

Søderberg, Anne-Marie. 2017. Experience and cultural learning in global business contexts. In Ling Chen (ed.), Intercultural communication, 415–435. Boston & Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.10.1515/9781501500060-019Search in Google Scholar

Strauss, Anselm & Juliet Corbin. 1998. Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory, 2nd edn Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Search in Google Scholar

Takeuchi, Riki, Seokhwa Yun & Joyce E.A. Russell. 2002. Antecedents and consequences of the perceived adjustment of Japanese expatriates in the USA. International Journal of Human Resource Management 13(8). 1224–1244.10.1080/09585190210149493Search in Google Scholar

Ting-Toomey, Stella. 2005. Identity negotiation perspective: A theoretical framework. In William B Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing about intercultural communication, 211–234. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Search in Google Scholar

Ware, Colin. 2004. Information visualization: Perception for design, 2nd edn San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.Search in Google Scholar

Welch, Denice E., Lawrence S Welch & Rebecca Piekkari. 2005. Speaking in tongues: Theimportance of language in international management processes. International Studies of Management and Organization 35(1). 10–27.10.1080/00208825.2005.11043723Search in Google Scholar

Wright, Christopher, Fumie Kumagai & Norman Bonney. 2001. Language and power in Japanesetransplants in Scotland. Sociological Review 49(2). 236–253.10.1111/1467-954X.00254Search in Google Scholar

Zhang, Ling E. & Anne-Wil Harzing. 2016. From dilemmatic struggle to legitimized indifference: Expatriates’ host country language learning and its impact on the expatriate-HCE relationship. Journal of World Business 51(5). 774–786.10.1016/j.jwb.2016.06.001Search in Google Scholar

Zhang, Ling E & Vesa Peltokorpi. 2015. Multifaceted effects of host country language proficiency in expatriate cross-cultural adjustments: A qualitative study in China. International Journal of Human Resource Management 27(13). 1448–1469.10.1080/09585192.2015.1072104Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2018-06-05
Published in Print: 2018-10-25

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 31.5.2023 from
Scroll to top button