Saving Face

This month Culture Teller lets us in on a technique that might make your business relationships run more smoothly…

0116_Culture Teller

One of the more common problems that expats tend to face when doing business in China is the issue of getting accurate information from their Chinese counterparts. There are countless stories where people were told false information, or information was withheld, or it was simply provided much later than it should have been. Sometimes, just getting a simple yes-or-no answer is a battle in itself.

There are a variety of reasons for this. It could be that it’s because they’re intentionally stalling in order to put more pressure on you, or it could be that it is an indication of problems in your relationship with them-that you’ve done something to offend, or they don’t feel they know you well enough to do business.

But probably the most common reason is all about face, both saving their own face, and ensuring you don’t lose face. And the good news is that, unlike the problems I listed in the previous paragraph, this one can be easier to deal with.

What you need to understand is that in a Chinese “business relationship”, the “relationship” part is often more important than the “business” part. When the leaders of respective companies meet, the primary purpose is to build and strengthen the personal relationship between them. Anything that could potentially damage that relationship — disagreeing with the other person, giving bad news to the other person, etc. is avoided.

What you need to understand is that in a Chinese “business relationship”, the “relationship” part is often more important than the “business” part.

Inevitably, this causes problems when westerners and Chinese do business together. The western side is sometimes perceived by the Chinese side as being too aggressive (demanding information they don’t feel comfortable to give, because it may damage the relationship); or as not respecting the relationship. While the Chinese side is perceived by the westerner as being evasive, dishonest, or incompetent.

There is a way to handle this. To many westerners, it can seem needlessly complicated,hhh but over the long term, it can actually lead to much clearer and more effective communication.

You should have two people involved in all negotiations and discussions. One is the boss, or leader. This should be someone with a high position/status in the company. Their job is to meet with their counterpart in the Chinese company, eat with them, drink with them, talk with them, etc. They can express, in broad terms, what they are looking for. They should express their appreciation of their Chinese counterpart, and both compliment and thank him for his effort. But they should not raise complaints, or make demands. Their job is to focus on the relationship — and the stronger the relationship is, the more the Chinese side will be willing to do for them.

The other person should be introduced as a subordinate, the person responsible for daily communication between the two sides. It is this person who will bring up difficult questions, complaints, and demands. But they will not do it when their boss is around. They will do it after the meeting. And usually, they will be introduced to someone on the Chinese side who is in a similar position.

So here’s how it works. All have dinner together, eat, drink, get drunk, and sing some bad karaoke–all the normal Chinese banquet stuff. All discussion should be focused on personal stuff (getting to know each other), or explaining in broad terms what you want, or complimenting your Chinese counterparts.

The next day, the western boss talks to his western subordinate, and tells him whatever information needs to be communicated. The western subordinate talks to his Chinese counterpart. The Chinese subordinate talks to their boss. And because you’ve made the effort to build a strong relationship, that boss will generally be more willing to do what needs to be done. And any bad news or problems will be communicated through their subordinate, to your subordinate, who communicates it to their boss.

Yes, it’s a roundabout and time consuming process, but this helps the Chinese boss to avoid direct conflict or loss of face with the western boss. He will feel more comfortable to give more clear and timely information. And because of the stronger relationship, he’ll be willing to make greater efforts on your behalf.

It won’t solve all the problems. And it won’t work in every situation. But in a great many situations, you’ll find that it actually leads to much more effective communication, and much better results.