China, a top U.S. trade partner, has a diversified industrial economy that provides U.S. businesses with multiple opportunities for partnership and investment. When negotiating with Chinese business professionals, understand that this Confucian culture comes with a unique set of rules. As a cross-cultural business trainer and the author of Access to Asia, consider these five culture tips for successful negotiation and building lasting business relationships in China.
1. Saving Face: One of the fundamental tenants of Asian culture is the concept of “face,” or dignity and honor. A loss of face reflects on the individual, their company, and those present. So professionals strive to maintain their own face and that of their colleagues. For Western negotiators, this means that even if the Chinese strongly disagree with your proposal, they will refrain from telling you so outright in order to protect your honor. Don’t be lulled into a sense of complacency by their cooperation, and pay close attention to phrases such as “I don’t know if it is possible…” or “We will need to discuss” and “that may be difficult.”
2. Deciphering High-Context Communication: While Westerners, especially U.S. Americans tend to be more direct or “low-context” when discussing business, Eastern cultures express emotions through nuanced subtleties and may only share their thoughts with the in-group. Take time to establish a relationship with your Chinese counterparts by learning to read nonverbal cues like a raised eyebrow, prolonged silence, or a subtle nod.
3. Planning Strategy in Advance: Because of the preeminence accorded to strong business relationships, negotiations may occur over a longer time periods. Meetings are almost always held face-to-face to build trust and foster mutual understanding. Decisions must be deliberated among the group. Have a clear goals to achieve during the negotiations, and be patient as both sides work towards an agreement. Because negotiations will last longer than planned, consider keeping careful records of the meetings, asking for a Memorandum of Understanding.
4. Foregoing Ego: In Chinese culture, humility is a must, and displays of arrogance will be met with distaste. Include your official title and role in the company on your business card Avoid going to great lengths to establish your authority and importance. Focus instead on fostering relationships based on common interests and goodwill. One way to do this is during baiju drinking sessions, where Chinese colleagues will go out for drinks and leave the strict decorum in the office.
5. Delivering Diplomacy: Above all, remain respectful, cool and calm during each layer of the negotiating process. Becoming emotional or overzealous will derail your efforts, and decrease your standing, so maintain composure at all times. If you disagree with your counterparts, don’t give in to frustration. Instead, carefully explain your reasoning and support your points with examples if possible. A diplomatic approach will resonate with this face-conscious culture.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.
Photo Credit: Uiconstock