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China represents a vast emerging market for American businesses and entrepreneurs. Effective business communication in China has more barriers, however, than mere language. To be successful closing deals in China, American business people must learn some important cultural differences. They also must remain sensitive to the importance of business customs that may seem quite the opposite of the casual and somewhat bold approach to business learned at home.
According to Professor John L. Graham and attorney N. Mark Lam, who wrote in the "Harvard Business Review," while it may be helpful to learn the superficial rules of Chinese etiquette, it is even more important to understand that the way the Chinese prefer to do business has its roots in an ancient agrarian culture where cooperation, hierarchical order and a strong sense of community were essential to survival. The Chinese, therefore, seek to build trust and long-term relationships rather than merely to seek out immediate opportunities. Americans accustomed to constant networking may not be sensitive to this.
All cultures have rules of etiquette that must be followed in order to show respect. In China, businessmen and businesswomen are expected to dress conservatively in dark or neutral colors. Women's apparel should be modest. That means high necklines and low-heeled shoes.
Understanding hierarchy is essential because the greatest attention, including order of address and seating, depends on the importance of the individual within the organization. American businesspeople should know who answers to whom. The tone of conversation matters as well.
Meals begin with the host taking a drink of his beverage and then offering food to the highest-ranking guest. The host should order more than enough food for the table, and tipping is not appreciated.
Americans should present their business counterparts with small, wrapped gifts from the United States and present them respectfully with both hands.
They should not discuss business at a meal except in the unlikely event that they are asked to do so.
Avoiding Persuasive Rhetoric
According to Graham and Lam, attempting to persuade a Chinese counterpart or client of the correctness of your point of view will probably backfire. They explain that in Chinese culture it is more appropriate to assume the validity of both sides' position and to haggle instead. This is a slow and dispassionate process that the authors say should never be short-circuited. The fervor and eloquence that American negotiators are accustomed to bringing to the negotiating table are reason for mistrust in China.
Adopting the Chinese Negotiating Style
As Americans, we tend to present ourselves primarily on our own merits. This may not be enough in China. When possible, American businesspeople should let their counterparts see that they are respected by their American colleagues. Chinese trading partners should be approached through their trusted intermediaries. Americans should remain formal in their communications; too much casual or personal bantering is considered disrespectful. Americans should never show anger or frustration toward their negotiating partner, and they should be tolerant when the negotiating partner wants to shift topics of conversation. Initial offers are probably padded to allow for considerable haggling. Being patient but persistent is advised. Finally, Americans should never disrespect their negotiating partner or make jokes or comments at her expense.
Taking the Longer View
Americans may focus on doing one deal at a time and then looking around before contemplating the next one. While they may go to China to purchase a single shipment of goods or to form a relationship with a single company, the people they meet along the way may take a longer view by considering how the business relationship is likely to grow and expand. Losing sight of this fact may cost Americans opportunities about which they have not even dreamed.
Lois Lawrence is an attorney and freelance writer living and working in Stonington, Conn. She has written on many subjects including travel, food, consumerism, relationships, insurance and law. Lawrence earned a Bachelor of Arts in economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1976, and a Juris Doctor degree from Boston University School of Law in 1979.