Business Communication Customs in China
It cannot be denied that there is an increasing global trend for the expansion or opening of new businesses in other countries, and this is probably even more so in a large market such as China. However, the Chinese culture being steeped in its tradition-rich history could present a number of challenges to business practitioners who are not well-versed in the nuances of negotiating deals inherent in such a society.
It is actually of paramount importance to familiarize oneself with these customs and the ideas behind them, especially because a lot of communication in this particular culture occurs in a nonverbal way. An article by Hannon and Cohen substantiate this fact as roughly 3 out of 4 respondents in their poll stated that they took cultural differences into consideration when making deals in China (Purchasing.com).
The Chinese Psyche
Ghauri and Fang view the philosophy of Confucianism as the underlying influence behind the prevailing culture in China. With regards to this, the authors proceeded to identify six important Confucian values which were: (1) moral cultivation, (2) importance of interpersonal relationships, (3) family and group orientation, (4) respect for Age and hierarchy, (5) avoidance of conflict and need for harmony, and (6) the concept of Chinese face (308).
Moral cultivation pertains to the importance of the development of character or moral ascendancy for an individual. This feature in fact, is prominently featured in Confucian doctrine while legal power is not. The second factor, or the importance of interpersonal relationships, covers the conduct of an individual under the different types of relationships that would be encountered in life. Relationships are usually characterized as being hierarchical, reciprocal and family-centered in nature. Family and group orientation as the third feature is viewed as of the utmost importance.
In fact, the word for ‘country’ in Chinese is guojia, which is an amalgamation of guo (state) and jia (family). Thus, guojia is actually taken to mean that the state and family should always go side by side. Respect for age and hierarchy represents another important cornerstone for Confucianism. The association of age with wisdom entails that respect be given to individuals of advanced years. Also, everyone is expected to dutifully perform one’s task according to the hierarchical structure, so that societal success may be achieved. Avoidance of conflict and the need for harmony is best epitomized by Confucius’ saying that “a true gentleman does not quarrel and lose his temper” and is regarded as a governing standard in all relationships.
The last value or the concept of Chinese face, is prevalent in the culture up to this day. It is viewed as a means for self-regulation and is a primary consideration in all aspects of an individual’s life. Thus, negotiations in Chinese society are often influenced by these values and etiquette (Ghauri and Fang 309). At present, this culture and frame of thinking still prevails in China, and how its citizens do business.
Communication during the Initial Meeting
There are a few key points that must be stressed when approaching an initial meeting with Chinese businessmen. These details are of course, based on the concepts that were discussed earlier such as face and hierarchy.
Chinese businessmen have a tendency of interpreting behavior and other nonverbal cues even prior to the actual vocal presentation of ideas and proposals. Punctuality is one issue of particular importance in the Chinese culture, as it is considered a very insulting gesture when one is late for an appointment. Since their society places great importance in hierarchy, the act of bringing an individual holding a senior position in one’s company or organization would be greatly advised.
This individual would be expected to be the first to enter the room where the meeting shall be held as the head of the delegation, with those trailing him or her being arranged according to decreasing levels of authority. This senior member shall be expected to lead the negotiations. During the times he or she is discussing something, as the hierarchical culture would dictate, subordinates are expected to avoid intruding (Chinese-school.netfirms.com).
In keeping with this theme, the most senior member of each group should always be acknowledged first during introductions. At this point, physical contact like suddenly putting an arm over the other person’s shoulders should be avoided, as the Chinese are not comfortable with being touched by strangers. One should also refrain from the use of hand gestures when talking, since it is generally received with annoyance. A gesture such as covering one’s mouth with the hand is considered vulgar. As a general rule, it would be wise to avoid performing unnecessary gestures and showing excessive emotion in these types of deals (Cba.uni.edu).
One important ceremony for the Chinese would be the exchange of business cards. In the “What You Should Know Before Negotiating” guidelines posted in the Chinese-school.netfirms website, it is mentioned that business cards should have both sides printed, with one side having Chinese characters.
It is important that an individual’s position in the company would be conveyed in the card, as the Chinese are very interested in finding out which personnel would dictate the decision-making process. Any distinctions or recognitions garnered by the organization being represented by the individual (i.e. being the largest supplier of a certain product in Europe) should also be placed on the card. Having the card printed in gold ink might be advisable, as the Chinese view it as an auspicious element.
When presenting the business card, one should hold it with both hands as a show of courtesy, with the side containing the Chinese characters facing the person that it is being presented to. Upon receiving the other person’s business card, one should examine its contents for a few minutes before placing it in a card case or on the table where one is seated. Failing to read or even just look at a business card, and then quickly placing it in one’s pocket is considered very rude.
Aside from this implication, being able to glean information such as the position of a particular individual is also vital. It is a common practice to address people by the position they are holding, albeit with a few appropriate modifications. If the title is ‘Assistant General Manager’ for example, one should resort to addressing that person simply as ‘General Manager’ instead (Chinese-school.netfirms.com).
During this initial meeting engaging in “small talk” would be encouraged, but one should also be aware of which topics should be avoided, as the Chinese might find them offensive. Talks dealing with Taiwan or Tibet’s stature as an independent nation and praise for the Japanese are fine examples. Also, praising a province such as Beijing in front of Shanghai natives would not reflect well on the perception of the individual who made such a comment (Chinese-culture.net).
Communication during and after the Negotiation Process
One of the most interesting features of holding negotiations with Chinese businessmen would be the emphasis placed on never saying ‘no’ directly. This is one particular trait of the Chinese business culture which usually sows the greatest confusion among people unfamiliar with the practice. Again, this act may find its roots in the Confucian doctrine.
In the webpage of the University of Northern Iowa on cross-cultural communication particularly for China, it was explicitly stated that negative replies are considered impolite in business culture. One should choose to resort to saying maybe instead of directly stating ‘no’. Consequently, when a Chinese counterpart would say ‘This is not a serious problem’ or ‘This is not a big concern’, that person would actually mean that problems are still present (Cba.uni.edu).
According to the Chinese-school website, giving gifts is also a complicated issue that one must deal with. Current business policies in China view gift-giving as a form of bribery. However, the perception of doing business in the context of an interpersonal relationship or guanxi, instead of simply just being a combination of professional deals, may point to gift-giving as a means of enhancing such a relationship. The gift should be given as a token of friendship (i.e. after deals are concluded) and should not be blatantly expensive, since it may oblige the receiver to reciprocate.
Gifts to people of the same rank should be of the same perceived value, with the value of gifts depending largely on the individual’s position in an organization. A safe color for gift wrappers may be red, or the task may simply be assigned to local gift wrapping services. Banquets are also customary in the country, with such events being expected to be reciprocated by the other party.
One should pay attention to avoiding making one’s banquet more lavish than the previous one held by the other party. Details for one’s group when entering, sitting, dining and leaving the venue should also be studied closely in keeping up with tradition. Again, all of these practices would follow the recurring concepts of hierarchy and face in Chinese culture.
There are perhaps, several other nuances to communication in business dealings with Chinese organizations, and these may be best learned as increased association with the individuals and further immersion in the culture is experienced firsthand. Although one might never acquire knowledge on all of the practices, the ability to persist with an open-minded approach to learning about cultures would always be an indispensable asset in this undertaking.
“Chinese Business Culture.” Chinese-school.netfirms.com. 15 May 2008
“Cross-Cultural Communication.” Cba.uni.edu. 15 May 2008 <http://www.cba.uni.edu/buscomm/InternationalBusComm/world/asia/china/china.html>
Ghauri, Pervez N. and Tony Fang. “Negotiating with the Chinese: A socio-cultural analysis.”
Journal of World Business 36.3 (2001): 303-325.
Hannon, David and Emma Cohen. “Dos and Don’ts of doing Business in China.” Purchasing.com.18 May 2006. 15 May 2008
“Understanding Chinese Business Culture and Etiquette.” Chinese-culture.net
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