in Language & Culture

When travelling to China for a business trip, many first-time foreigners arrive with a winding list of do’s and don’ts, believing that these handy rules of etiquette are the primary key to successful negotiations. While “do: bring your own translator” and “don’t: begin eating before the host” are tips that may help get you into the initial business meeting, they most likely will not be enough to maintain a long-term relationship. You will also need to understand the cultural differences in negotiating style in order to develop thriving business relationships.

China Negotiation Image

The Chinese word for negotiation, 谈判 (tánpàn), is the combination of the characters “to discuss” and “to judge.” In China, negotiations are considered to be the main platform for building trust, a slow process that could eventually lead to the two parties working together and mutually benefiting from each other. Trust is earned through dialogue, which aims to judge and evaluate the opposing side’s capabilities and assets.  For many foreign enterprises, these lengthy Chinese negotiations present a challenge, especially since in select countries it’s common to carry out discussions over the phone. In order for negotiations to be as successful as possible, it is important for foreign partners to adapt to a slower-paced meeting style, one that is believed to build interpersonal relationships.

Respect is a valued asset in China, and plays a pivotal role in negotiations. Your Chinese counterparts will value any effort you show in getting to know them on a personal level. While there are numerous ways to bond during negotiations, bái​jiǔ (白酒 ) drinking sessions are very popular in China. Although many foreigners are less than fond of this Chinese spirit, often referring to it as “firewater,” it is important to remember that drinking together is a deeply rooted ritual in Chinese culture. Turning down a gesture to toast is considered rude, and could potentially hinder the negotiation process.

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Negotiations between Westerners and Chinese often fail due to a lack of mutual cultural understanding. For foreign partners, the prolonged style of negotiation in China can initially be frustrating. It’s an ongoing process with the objective of creating a stable structure for long-term cooperation, as opposed to drafting a one-time agreement. In order to remain effective in negotiations, it is essential to create a strategic plan that adopts the local approach and shows understanding of Chinese culture. If you are willing to acknowledge, understand, and work with the differences, successful negotiations and endless opportunities are just around the corner.


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