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Negotiation signals of Chinese business pros

Social capital is crucial in all cultures, but it’s easy for a Westerner to miss the signs of when and how to use this ancient form of social capital in Asia,

Chines Executives negotiation

Chines Executives

Social capital exists across all cultures

All cultures have social capital, or the benefits of cooperation and cohesion in a community or group. In a general sense, social capital is what promotes unity and stability in any culture and is driven by cultural norms and collective expectations. Many cross-culturalists, as I call them, have broached the topic of what “face” is, how it can be earned, how it effects a person’s social network, etc. But what concerns me, is the lack of mutual understanding surrounding this nebulous concept.

Most of us in the West have an understanding of what it means to “save face.” In America, we are all concerned on some level, about how we are viewed by our counterparts. However, being an “individualistic society,” we garner our sense of worth, theoretically speaking, internally. How we view ourselves is what drives our perceptions of life, business, culture, etc.

For the Chinese, “face” is just as important. Granted, the Chinese definition is more of a collective concept (think back to Geert Hofstede) and is couched in how they are viewed by others. Regardless, it is important to remember that this form of social capital effects business, negotiations and all forms of interpersonal interactions.

Saving Face – a brief case study “Maybe means No”

I was all set to give a lecture on American pop culture for a group of graduate and undergraduate students at Shandong University at Weihai. My boss at the time, the Director of Foreign Services, was most excited about the lecture and marketed it as THE event to attend that semester. I was encouraged to push the envelop and give them a “real” understanding of American pop culture.

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In my preparation, I asked if I could include the lyrics of a somewhat racy song to contrast the American and Chinese pop culture a week before the lecture. After playing the song and providing translated lyrics, I was told “Maybe” with a smile. Had I not spoken Chinese and understood what he told his assistant after I left (essentially that the lyrics were too progressive to be included in a lecture) I would have included them and lost face for both of us!

Instead of telling me no to save face in front of his colleagues at the lecture, he opted to give me face in this one-on-one meeting. Later that day, his assistant came to me and told me that they were still discussing the issue.I knew that maybe meant no, and was able to adjust accordingly. Sadly, though, many negotiations and contracts are lost due to not understanding this concept of “face.”

The problem for most Americans

Typically, in any social interaction, we try to look our best in front of others. In Chinese culture, preserving “face” is one way to do that. Receiving compliments, garnering the most discounts in a business meeting, or being seen as the most important or most knowledgable in a group are all ways of “saving face” in China. In an effort to “give face,” most Chinese will not say “no” to you. Instead, noncommittal phrases like “Maybe” and “we’ll see” are used. This has been the bane of my existence in some business meetings.

While it’s all well and good to understand the cultural differences and business implications, a number of my counterparts and even clients have felt uneasy about adhering to or taking a culturally sensitive stand. The number one issue I hear is that they (the American) feels like they are not only lying to themselves but to their potential business associate. It feels fake or phony to say “maybe” when they know for a fact the answer will be “no.” Another issue I’ve seen is that some Western businesspeople interpret the situation as coddling.

I can see how it can be perceived this way, but urge people to use their best, culturally sensitive judgement. If saying “maybe” to answer a definitively “no” question makes them feel dubious, then instead answer with a “we’ll look into it,” “let’s discuss it later,” or “I’ll do my best”.

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Key takeaways

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  • The concept of “face” is not to be confused with “check your morals at the door,” but should be seen as a way to mutual preserve the business relationship.
  • “Face like any currency, can be earned, lost or given.
  • If you are relying on a local Chinese translator while in China to negotiate a business arrangement, be aware they may be more concerned with the process rather than the end goal.
  • If you find you aren’t getting the straight answer you seek, try breaking down the request (terms, length of contract, desired outcomes, etc) into smaller, easier to digests bites of information.

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Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

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