In the collective mind, doing business with Chinese is a difficult task. If we think about it, how could it be otherwise when dealing with someone living on the other side of the globe, with such a different culture, habits, education, mind, motivation? From our own experience, it is a common but unconscious mistake to believe that business is a science somehow disconnected from social and human behaviour. And many collaboration or acquisition projects fail because of this mistake.

In fact, the central concern of most of Chinese businessmen is not losing face, which means (but not only) being assured to buy at a fair market price. In an unknown social and legal environment, this concern leads to behaviour that Westerners could consider bizarre, creating more distances between people.

Here are some advices to reduce these distances. Please consider them as a starting-point for reflexion and constructive discussion, and not as universal solution to succeed with Chinese.

Work in Chinese

When working abroad, some of us usually claim speaking a professional english to overcome language barrier. Chinese businessmen are not different. The reality is that an approximate english, from both side, leads to many misunderstanding. If we want to work with Chinese, we should seriously consider speaking and writing in Chinese. Translator must be chosen carefully in business. A good translator does not translate the language, he translates the intention. This involve analysing the verbal and the non-verbal according to the speaker’s culture, reading between the lines and eventually providing the good information in a way the receiver can understand.

A good translator does not translate the language, he translates the intention.

Beware of numbers

This point is directly linked to the language but deserves a specific focus. The Western culture thinks numbers in threes:

  • 1 thousand = 1.000
  • 1 million = 1.000 thousand = 1.000.000
  • 1 billion = 1.000 million =

The Chinese culture thinks numbers in fours

  • 1 wan (一万) = 1.0000 = 10.000 = 10 thousand
  • 1 yi (一亿) = 1.0000 wan = 1.0000.0000 = 100.000.000 = 100 million

In discussion with Chinese people, it is easy to be confused when talking about numbers. Example: if a Chinese says « 100 wan », his French interlocutor could think instinctively « 100 thousand = 100.000 » while the said number was « 100.0000 = 1000.000 ».

Do not make people losing face

« Les Chinois sont comme tout le monde, ils aiment qu’on les aime », as said by Jean-Pierre Raffarin (Chinese are like everyone, they appreciate that we appreciate them).

« Not make losing face » is an art well integrated into Chinese culture. On a practical level this involves, among others, to handle communication in a subtle way.

A common conflictual point is the directly way Europeans express themselves, especially when it comes to say « no ». Whether it is justified or not (this is not the point), a clear and direct refusal makes people feel bad in front of you, of his partners, of his team mates. If we might think it saves time for both parties, it does definitely not saving faces. Instead, it will be highly appreciated to express your curiosity about what you have heard, to ask for more information and to make suggestion in order to better apply the idea to your business. And vice-versa, it is not because a Chinese didn’t say « no » that he will accept. It is his way to tell you he do not agree without making you uncomfortable.


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