Understanding Chinese culture is about more than just understanding the language. With a history of customs and traditions rooted in thousands of years of history, China has built its own unique and vastly differentiated business culture that at once integrates Western influences while fiercely preserving its own unique perspective. Differences in American vs. Chinese business culture can create friction if not handled sensitively. With a few tips, though, you can master the basics to ensure respectful, courteous business communication.
Pride Means Something Very Different
Differences in American and Chinese business customs are largely influenced by differences in American and Chinese mentalities. Americans place a great deal of emphasis on the self and personal identity, while the Chinese focus more on a collective national identity.
Where Americans are tempted to brag about personal successes, Chinese business professionals see themselves as part of a whole where they may think of successes as a nation or successes as a company. Focusing on individual successes can be seen as braggadocios and lacking in humility. Americans may want to tone down the boasting and find another way to impress.
Direct vs. Indirect Communication
Americans are very fond of being direct in communication. This won’t work well in Chinese business culture, where indirect communication is the norm. Bluntness, persuasion, and aggression are often used in American business culture to pursue an advantage in negotiations, but these tactics can make Chinese business partners shut down and retreat.
Being too aggressive can kill a potential deal, so focus on observing polite courtesies and showing respect and deference to your business contacts. They’ll show you the same respect and deference as you find your way toward a middle ground and mutually satisfactory agreements. However, don’t be surprised if Chinese business partners ask you extremely personal questions that defy this notion of indirectness.
Personal vs. Impersonal
So why do Chinese business partners ask such personal questions? You’ll find a different approach to mingling business with personal life in China. While in America it’s encouraged to keep the personal out of the workplace and avoid crossing boundaries, in China it’s expected that your personal and professional lives will overlap.
To the Chinese, business partnerships are about trust. To trust someone, they need to know someone. That can mean asking immediate personal questions that may seem invasive to Americans, but are a matter of building trust in business relationships for the Chinese. This is not, however, an invitation to be overly familiar and informal in your style of communication.
Mixing Business with Pleasure
On the note of personal vs. impersonal, it’s customary to mingle outside of the office while in China – particularly when trying to impress a new client or partner. While it can be seen as unethical in America to wine and dine prospective clients and partners, in China it’s expected. During these entertainment excursions, it’s often rare to even discuss business; the goal is, instead, to make clients and partners feel welcomed and respected. This can be cemented with gifts and other tokens that show the host professional’s generosity.
Little White Lies
While Americans can be prone to arguing vociferously and seeing it as a normal part of trade practices, in China it can be seen as extremely impolite to disagree with someone. A Chinese professional may lie to your face to avoid disagreeing with you, and there may be moments where you have to be sensitive to the fact that “yes” actually means “no” but it’s customary to offer little white lies to save face and prevent friction.
Different Hierarchical Structures
Many Americans won’t hesitate to challenge their managers in the workplace, and often there’s a collegiate working style that places management professionals on the same level as team members in a collaborative environment. The same can’t be said for Chinese business culture. In Chinese business culture, importance is placed on:
- Respecting hierarchies; decisions made by those above you are considered final
- Understanding the invisible rules of respect and deference toward superiors
Decisions Take Time
Chinese businesses don’t move at the same frenetic speed as American businesses. American professionals working with Chinese partners can’t expect quick decisions. While American businesses may push for rapid change and aggressive pursuit of deals, Chinese business professionals tend to take time to consider decisions and consult others above them in the hierarchy before making a choice. Pushing for a faster decision will only meet with polite resistance and deflections.
Contracts vs. Personal Guarantees
Americans tend to like everything in writing. Every business transaction is a contract, legally binding and unable to be challenged, with terms laid out clearly and with no room for confusion. This can make the more lax Chinese attitude about contracts baffling. Instead of contracts, Chinese business professionals bank on personal trust in their relationships with business partners. The expectation is that each party expects the other to do the right thing in honoring their agreements, upholding a mutually unspoken understanding.
Learning Chinese Business Etiquette
Students working to attain a degree in business can benefit greatly from spending time in business settings in China. One of the easiest ways to do this is by registering for a study abroad program that is built to help such students learn about business etiquette as they also learn about history, culture, customs and politics.