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Doing business in China

As long as China continues to be the engine of world trade, doing business there is bound to be on the agenda for any world trader. Here are a few practical tips designed to help you avoid confusion when negotiating in China.

To begin with, the Chinese often answer with a very quick 'yes' whenever you ask a question. This happens even when we know they haven't thought about the question long enough to formulate an answer. When Westerners do business in China, confusion often arises over the word 'yes' in response to our questions. We tend to assume that 'yes' means 'I agree'. This can have serious consequences when negotiating agreements. The Asian 'yes' is a habitual response. For that reason, consider it a neutral constant. Train yourself not to hear 'yes' as meaning agreement. Make it mean nothing in your mind, until you have had a chance to confirm what 'yes' means in the specific context of your conversation.

Context is important, because when a Chinese person says 'yes' it can mean any number of things. Several Asian cultural practices come into play with the word 'yes'. Culture affects every business conversation, and not just the formal negotiation that secures the sale - mannerisms, trust, face, respect and outlook.

Most Chinese people, especially those who don't have a lot of opportunity to talk with English speakers, use a sound such as 'yeah' or 'oh' to keep the conversation going. It does not mean 'I get what you are saying.' It does not signal agreement. It just means, 'I am listening.' Where there is confusion, they feel that if they can keep you talking long enough there is a good chance they will finally get your meaning. So hear it as acknowledgement that you have asked the question, and not as a response to your question.

In the Chinese culture, it is considered an honour to be asked to do something. They are happy to help and eager to prove that they are the best person to assist. Eagerly saying 'yes' will deepen the trust you have placed in them. Knowing this will prevent a feeling of distrust from developing when we encounter a 'yes' that comes too quickly by Western standards.

Where there is a risk of losing face (yours or theirs), the Chinese will often pretend to understand your meaning. This happens surprisingly often, owing to the language barrier. Especially when other Chinese are also present, the one who is supposed to have the best grasp of the English language may feel ashamed of not understanding your question. Further, by an interesting cultural twist, your unclear communication has the potential to cause you loss of face. A Chinese engineer who negotiated multi-million-dollar deals for integrated software systems across China explained the thought process: "Usually, in our culture, the Chinese pretend to understand. I can't always say 'sorry' or I will lose face. The Westerner will think, 'Why can't you understand?' so I just fake to understand. I say 'yes'. If I can do that, I give you face. Even among Chinese people, where they use the same language, they like to say 'yes' during the conversation."

Beware! If anyone says 'no', the conversation is over. The same applies in the negotiation context. If a person says 'no', the negotiation is over.

When you are uncertain whether you have got your point across, it is a mistake to ask the question 'Do you understand?' For one thing, it is condescending. For another, it creates a double bind. No Chinese will ever confess to not understanding. It is an embarrassment. Why would you want to humiliate them by asking them to acknowledge a lack of understanding? Similarly, the question 'Do you have the authority to make a decision?' begs a 'yes' response. They are aware that Westerners want a quick decision and don't want to waste time with someone who can't make that decision. Chances are, they will say 'yes' so that you will not look down on them for not having the ability to decide on their own. So be careful not to put your colleagues in that impossible situation. Do not ask questions that invite a 'no' response.

The Asian need for honour and respect governs all business activity. Consider for a moment the implications of the word 'no' in Asian culture. 'No' is considered rude and confrontational. Even shaking the head to mean 'no' signals disrespect. It hurts the relationship and can lead to a loss of face. That's why Asians will not openly challenge your opinions with a 'no'. The concern is that if they cause loss of face through what they consider to be a rejection ('no' is a rejection) it will lead to a loss of trust. Loss of trust results in lost opportunity.

While it is bad manners to reject directly, indirect communication is totally acceptable.

In the can-do Chinese culture, the first response is always 'yes'. The easiest thing in the world is for a Chinese to say 'yes' and then figure out how to do the thing later. This is one of the ways in which Chinese culture differs from Japanese culture. The Japanese will tend to respond first in the negative.

Anyway, here are ten different ways to ensure 'yes' means 'yes'.
  1. Ask how to communicate. Ask anyone you are dealing with how they want you to communicate with them. Do they want you to send emails? Or do they prefer to talk over the phone?
  2. Plan your message. Take the time to plan your conversation. What words will most easily put your point across?
  3. Warm up the brains. Before you call, send an email outlining your key points to provide a context for the conversation.
  4. Prepare questions. Frame your questions so they can't be answered by a simple 'yes'. Use open-ended questions that begin with a well-worn 'who', 'when', 'why', 'where' and 'how'.
  5. Give permission to ask you to repeat. At the start of every conversation, ask you to stop you and ask you to repeat if they are not exactly sure what you said.
  6. Slow down. Leave space between your sentences to allow your words to sink in. There is always a time lapse when translating from one language to another.
  7. Simplify and clarify. Use easy words. Avoid slang, metaphors and humour, because they don't translate well. When you want to say something complicated, find different ways of saying it.
  8. Signal your intent. Start your sentence with words that let the other person know what to expect next. For instance, 'I have three questions to ask: the first question is...'
  9. Check for comprehension. Make sure you are understood. Ask whoever you are talking to to explain their understanding of what you have agreed upon. If a commitment is made, politely ask how they plan to accomplish the task. If appropriate, ask what steps they would take to assure a quality process.
  10. Follow up in writing. Prepare a written copy of your essential points. Ask for a written confirmation of agreement.  
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