Avoid business faux pas with Chinese

Jan. 6, 2005
One of the most important keys to doing business in China is the willingness to modify Western behaviors. "It is pure Western arrogance to go to China and expect to do business as we do in the West," says international marketing consultant Mia Doucet, author of the book China in Motion.

One of the most important keys to doing business in China is the willingness to modify Western behaviors. "It is pure Western arrogance to go to China and expect to do business as we do in the West," says international marketing consultant Mia Doucet, author of the book China in Motion. "Even with the best intentions, what works in the West can result in failure in the Far East."

"We need to learn how to communicate with Asians. And we can't do that without understanding some of the dramatic differences in our cultures," says Doucet. "Our behavior needs to change. When we choose to adapt our behavior out of respect for cultural differences, we start the process of building the deep human connection that Asians crave. That emphasis on relationship will build trust and assure loyalty to your organization long into the future."

Doucet counsels companies to recognize that the Chinese have a deep need for acknowledgment. "We all want to be acknowledged, but the Chinese crave it. Anything and everything you can do to reinforce status and respect will repay you in spades."Doucet says, "Companies have to understand that the Chinese need for respect and acknowledgement governs all business communication, and not just negotiations. It takes careful training and preparation to avoid costly cross-cultural gaffes. The folks who interact with Asian customers, suppliers, and local staff by phone, fax, and e-mail need to be just as aware of cross-cultural sensitivities as the business traveler who brings home the contract.

Once we know the Western behaviors that elicit passive resistance in the Chinese, we can make the small changes that have a major impact on productivity.

1. Decision Making

The Western system rewards good, independent decision making. We value the philosophy of individual accountability. We are taught to ask to speak directly to the decision maker. When customer issues arise, we demand that someone take responsibility.

In China, while the senior person makes major decisions, lesser decisions are reached by consensus. In the latter case, no one person is responsible. When you pressure your Asian colleagues for a decision, you are asking them to defy their instincts, their culture, and their training. They will not act because they cannot act alone. So the decision you want will stall. To speed the decision process, slow down. Make sure that all parties receive the same detailed information. Keep everyone in the loop.

2. Problem Solving

The freewheeling Western brainstorming practice goes against strict hierarchical codes of conduct. Successful brainstorming requires that everyone's ideas be treated equally, without hierarchy, and without regard for authority. All ideas are potentially laughable. But in a status-conscious culture, where acknowledging rank is critical to maintaining face, and where they are taught to take business seriously and not make mistakes, this presents an impossible situation.

It is best to avoid brainstorming. Problem solve logically. Allow one person to speak at a time. Defer to the one in authority. Start from the beginning and work through to a solution in a logical, step-by-step fashion.

3. Information Management

Westerners have the tendency to come to the conversation only partially prepared. They feel confident in their ability to wing it. If they don't have all the necessary information, they will provide it later.

The flip side of this tendency is to expect Asians to be fine with giving and receiving partial answers. However, Chinese are offended by partial answers. Lack of preparedness can cause loss of face and loss of trust.

Since an Asian won't get back to you until all the facts are known, break your requests for information into smaller segments. Prepare for every interaction. Do not present an idea or theory that has not been fully researched, proven, or studied beforehand. Do not risk looking unprepared by deluging your Asian contact with partial answers and frequent updates.

If you are unable to provide a complete response, acknowledge the request, apologize for the inconvenience, and then provide a complete and accurate response when the facts are in. Document in writing and in detail. Make sure your facts are 100% accurate in every detail. You will lose credibility if there are errors and they will be used against you later.

Mia Doucet provides training and consults with companies involved in business negotiations in the Pacific Rim. She has written a cross-cultural guide titled China in Motion: 17 Secrets to Slashing the Time to Production, to Market, and to Profits in China, Japan, and South Korea. For more information visit http://www.chinainmotion.com.

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