Chinese Etiquette and Negotiation

Respect and etiquette are a great determinant of success within negotiations. No one wants to negotiate with us if we are ignorant, removed, or distant from our surroundings. As soon as we leave the familiarity of North America, new cultures, traditions, languages, and norms emerge. Throughout my travels in the world of procurement, I’ve at times found myself surrounded by new cultures, business etiquette, and ways of doing things. Being aware of this is incredibly important. The only way to achieve our objectives is to seamlessly adapt to our surroundings (as best we can) and approach each foreign negotiation with an established sense of etiquette.

In a recent episode of Negotiations Ninja, I spoke with Bernice Lee, an etiquette expert based in Hong Kong. She explains the concept of “face” and how crucial it is when entering a negotiation. It embodies the concept that harmony in society is really important and each person has their own sense of self-respect.

For example, if in China, it’s crucial to understand that each person’s self-pride is reserved. It’s very rare that a Chinese person would openly say “no” or criticize openly. It would be very embarrassing for us to directly confront someone and lose face.

In North America, we are more direct in our feedback and we value people sharing their opinions openly, at least that’s how I try to do things. However, we need to recognize this is not the reality for a lot of collective cultures. When we leave North America, we need to be cognizant of our culturally specific tendencies, directly identify our social habits, and evaluate our biases. Failure to do these things will undermine our negotiations.

In North America, the way we present ourselves makes up a big part of how people determine our credibility. First impressions go a long way – luckily that is universal. There are other things we’re taught to do in North America, like smiling at strangers we meet. In Hong Kong, that would be met with confusion. Keeping hands on the table, making eye contact and standing up straight are all recommendations from Bernice, no matter which country you’re in.

Overall, through my conversation with Bernice, I learned establishing rapport is the most important thing we can do, no matter where we go. We will fulfill our objectives as negotiators if we uphold a certain standard of respect in our words and actions. Open-mindedness is the key to success.