• Business Success in China

15 Winning Skills to Help Seal the Deal

TWO-WAY TRADE between the United States and China exceeds $100 billion each year and it is poised to grow as China joins the World Trade Organization. As more companies sell or make more products and services in China, our technical professionals have begun to realize that success in doing business in China requires more than having the right technology or expertise. Just as there are technical standards such as ASTM’s for quality and testing, there are also standards of behavior, which are essential to building a successful business relationship.

Even first-rate engineers, scientists, and managers can lose an audience and waste their time and resources if they are unable to communicate effectively across borders and between cultures. Often, engineers and scientists pay attention solely to what they view as the job at hand, while giving little thought to their demeanor.

It is only natural that as we go about conducting business, each of us understands and is comfortable with our own cultural norms. When we do business abroad, however, we must be mindful that there are standards of behavior that are different from ours. Hence, when doing business in China, Americans tend to communicate with the Chinese using our own standards of behavior, meanwhile many American procedures, body language, and values are not the same as those expected by the Chinese.

Since 1980, I have worked with hundreds of American technical professionals and managers in doing business in China. I have watched many misunderstandings arise because of differences in standards of behavior between Americans and the Chinese people. Here are 15 practical do’s and don’ts that can help you avoid some all-too-common pitfalls.

1. Respect the business card.

The Chinese place a great deal of emphasis on the formality of exchanging business cards.

When Chinese individuals give their cards to someone, they often present it with both hands. To be courteous, you should receive business cards with both hands. Never put the card away immediately in your wallet or briefcase. Rather, place the card on the table or hold it in your hand for some time to acknowledge it and show that you care to know who they are.

The Chinese are a very status-conscious people. Make an effort to recognize people’s rank in their organizations.

Make sure that you have plenty of business cards of your own before you go to China. It is advisable to translate your name and title into Chinese. Everything else can stay in English.

2. Smile. Don’t look too serious.

A smile to the Chinese is like a handshake among Westerners. It is the most common means of communication in China when people meet. The Chinese view a smile as a friendly gesture. Smiling is universal in China.

In short, a smile is not a sign of weakness. So don’t look too serious—you may get off on the wrong foot.

3. Learn to talk “metric.”

For technical professionals, it is important to be conversant in both metric and English measurements. Present your charts, tables, data, and transparencies in both English and metric units. Your audience will appreciate and understand you better this way.

4. Don’t expect much eye contact.

Americans expect steady eye contact when talking with people. This is a behavior considered basic and essential. But it is not the case in China.

For the Chinese, a lack of steady eye contact is not an indication of lack of attention or respect. On the contrary, because of the authoritarian nature of the Chinese society, steady eye contact is viewed as inappropriate, especially when subordinates talk with their superiors.

Eye contact is sometimes viewed as a gesture of challenge or defiance; so the Chinese often talk while looking downward.

5. Make friends first, do business later.

Americans pride themselves on getting straight to the point. We want to cut to the chase. We haven’t got all day. This is not the Chinese way at all.

The Chinese like small talk and pleasantries. They want to learn more about you. Initial meetings are rarely expected to produce results. One salesman took seven trips before he got a retailer to carry his merchandise. A Chinese chief engineer told my client that he should make friends first before worrying about doing business.

Chinese sales people routinely wine and dine prospects before they sit down to talk business. It is not in your self-interest to cut to the chase too fast. Let people feel “connected” with you before you proceed.

6. Speak slowly.

Because English is the international language of commerce, we often forget how hard it is for non-English speakers to understand us.

Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are speaking a mile a minute. The result can be that we lose our audience. It does not matter how superb your expertise or ideas are if you can’t convey them in ways the Chinese can understand. Slow down when you speak.

The Chinese do not like asking people to repeat themselves. It is considered impolite. If they don’t understand you, they will continue looking attentive, all the while letting your thoughts and ideas pass them by. It is critical that you speak slowly.

The same is true with interpreters. If you speak too quickly, interpreters will ignore translating those segments that they don’t understand. Chinese interpreters seldom ask you to repeat yourself.

7. Let people save “face.”

What may seem to many of us to be showing an interest by asking questions, seems to the Chinese as if we were conducting the Spanish Inquisition. It is easy to understand why we want to have all the answers. After all, that’s why we’ve traveled all the way to China! However, it’s best to practice restraint. Remember, “You can’t make a plant grow by pulling on it,” as the Chinese saying goes.

The Chinese are not accustomed to revealing much about themselves or their company in public. Chinese employees are discouraged from exhibiting individuality. Few people volunteer to divulge much information, particularly if they are not sure whether their bosses will allow them to share the information with Westerners.

If people are vague or unwilling to give you a straight answer, don’t try to force them. Trying to force them to divulge the information will only earn you animosity.

8. Arrange one-on-one meetings.

There is one sure way to get good information from the Chinese—when they are alone with you. With no one around, the Chinese are direct, straightforward and free to speak their minds.

One skill I’ve disciplined myself to learn over the last 20 years in doing business in China is to stay a little longer after each sales or corporate presentation. I have learned not to expect much meaningful information in a crowd. Invariably, after my presentation, when most people have gone, a handful of people will walk up to me. They will ask if I can meet with them in their facilities or privately. Those are the moments I seek to get critical business information.

9. Avoid being too casual.

Americans are casual people. We believe that our society is not that class-conscious. We want to believe that we are not obsessed with social status. This may be the case in America, but it is definitely not so in China.

In America, we are used to calling people whom we don’t know very well by their first names. CEOs and workers may address each other by their first names. Even telemarketers call us by our first names!

Avoid calling your Chinese contacts by their first names. Always be formal in addressing people. It is the only safe and proper thing to do. Only childhood friends and spouses will refer to each other by their first names in China. So, when you start calling someone you don’t know very well by his or her first name, he or she finds it uncomfortable, embarrassing, and gauche.

10. Let them smoke.

You may dislike smoking very much. But many Chinese smoke and consider smoking, especially among men, the right thing to do in a business environment. If your contact offers you a cigarette, simply decline and thank them. But don’t lecture on how smoking is bad for them. If you allow them to smoke, they’ll listen to you longer.

I’ve learned not to meet people in my hotel room, so that I can still go to sleep without feeling that I’m turning into smoked meat. Try to meet people in a public, well-ventilated place so that they can smoke to their hearts’ content. They can smoke and you can breathe.

11. Don’t take a Chinese person saying “yes” literally to mean affirmative.

Chinese people have a habit of saying “yes” to show that they are paying attention to you or that they are following what you say. In such a context, the word “yes” does not mean that they agree with what you are saying.

To find out whether or not they agree with you, wait until they speak in complete sentences or put things in writing.

12. Watch your language.

Many Chinese who speak and read English learn the language in school, not in real life. Their English teachers may not have living and working experiences in the West. As a result, they may not understand colloquialisms or figures of speech that we take for granted.

I’ve seen all sorts of translation problems arise from nuances in speech, ranging from silly mistakes to off-color misinterpretations. An example of the confusion caused by a common expression is found in an article on negotiation skills that mentioned a “football field” in the middle of a sentence, when the English original talked about a “level playing field.” To avoid these pitfalls, find someone who has living and working experiences in the United States to go over your translations or interpret for you.

13. Avoid the color white in general--and a green-colored hat specifically.

White is the color of mourning in the Chinese tradition. When packaging products for Chinese distribution, avoid too much white background. Crimson or persimmon red is the preferred color. It suggests power, prosperity, and authority.

Avoid giving green-colored hats to Chinese men. Wearing a “green hat” in Chinese means that someone’s wife is unfaithful. It is shameful for a man to wear a green hat in public. Some Texas business people gave the late Deng Xiaoping a green hat as he was visiting a manufacturing company there. People wondered why Mr. Deng was reluctant to wear the hat.

14. Never give a Chinese person a clock.

The phrase “to give a clock” means to attend someone’s funeral in Chinese. Avoid giving people clocks as gifts.

15. Chinese sensitivity to numbers.

Many Chinese people are superstitious about numbers. The pronunciation of the number 4 in Chinese rhymes with “death” or “failure.” Many Chinese try very hard not to have their addresses or telephone numbers contain the numeral 4. And the number 14 is worse. The Chinese word for 14 rhymes with “sure to fail, sure to die.”

The numbers 3 and 8 are good numbers. The number 3 in Chinese rhymes with “growth,” which is therefore very welcome to business people. The number 8 rhymes with the Chinese word for “prosperity.” The number 168 sounds in Chinese like “forever prosperous,” which is a definite crowd pleaser. It is not an accident that the last four digits of the telephone number of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Shanghai is 8888.

Building Trust in the Chinese Society

Now for a personal story. I grew up in Hong Kong in the 1950s. My parents had a dry-goods store. One day, I overheard my mother talking with a salesman. They were reminiscing about how long it had taken for the salesman to persuade my mother to accept his merchandise. It took the salesman seven visits to succeed, but their business relationship lasted for decades until my parents retired.

I witnessed the same mindset and behavior in selling books and information products to Chinese librarians. One has to meet people face-to-face. We need to make presentations of our products, followed by a dinner here and a banquet there. The initial visits may not result in orders, but orders will come sooner or later and the relationship tends to be long lasting.

Beyond Business

It is true that understanding the finer points of doing business outside of one’s own culture can only broaden one’s market possibilities. The personal enrichment one experiences during global business exchanges, however, can oftentimes equal that of the career success we enjoy by better understanding the other individual.

Undoubtedly, cultural awareness can be rewarding in many ways. //

Copyright © ASTM, 2001

James Chan, Ph.D., is president of Asia Marketing and Management (AMM), an international business consulting company based in Philadelphia, Pa. Dr. Chan has 20 years of hands-on experience helping more than 100 Western publishers, professional associations, and manufacturers do business in China and other Asian countries.

View AMM’s profile online.

James Chan is the author of Spare Room Tycoon.