– 42 --
Typical Errors in Chinese-Western Negotiation
Bee Chen Goh
Editors’ Note: It’s no longer rare for negotiators based in a Western culture and instinctively applying Western concepts to find themselves in dealings with people who start from a very different cultural frame of reference. Goh, a Chinese-Malaysian law professor working in Australia, deconstructs the typical errors that negotiators unfamiliar with Chinese culture can be expected to make. This chapter should be read in conjunction with Miller on Codes of Culture, and Kaufman and Blanchot on Theory Meets Reality, as well as Michael Green’s on Negotiating While Black. Together, they can provide you with a fast tour that will provide some hints as to what you might encounter in still other cultures—and, perhaps, in less familiar parts of your own culture.
You walk into the boardroom ready to negotiate. You are as prepared as ever. This one is going to be no different. It may be easy; it may be tough. Much depends on the anticipated outcome, and, of course, the personalities of the other side. But, this time around, you find that the rules you are accustomed to do not make any sense of the situation. You are perplexed, frustrated, and helpless. What has gone wrong? You are at a loss.
This chapter essentially deals with cross-cultural pitfalls in communication between the Chinese and Westerners. The use of the term “Chinese” here is ethnological, referring to a people who share collectivistic habits of behavior with a dominant Confucian heritage. The reference to “Westerner” assumes an Anglo-Saxon tending towards individualistic values.
Cross-cultural negotiation can perplex any uninitiated negotiator. The rules of negotiation are different. And, because the rules are largely unspoken and operate in the unconscious, oftentimes, such negotiators have no idea as to what is not right about the whole thing. [NDR: Miller, Codes of Culture] Understanding Sino-Western negotiation in particular is no longer a deferrable luxury. As China now assumes its position as the world’s largest economy, a failure on one’s part to attempt to learn or engage in culturally Chinese-nuanced communicative behavior will not only put one at a considerable disadvantage, but may even imperil one’s self-proclaimed negotiation prowess.
Take the value of “confrontation,” for a start. Individualist cultures are accustomed to the idea of confrontation. Confrontation, essentially, is an indispensable component of negotiation in Western cultures. There is nothing strange about it. It operates in the Western unconscious mind and directs communication and behavior accordingly. It is so obvious that it is not even questioned or brought into one’s awareness in the typical Western environment. From a young age, children brought up in such a culture are instructed to speak their minds and assert their rights. [NDR: Liao, Style & Culture]
In contrast, the word “negotiation” is foreign and alien to the collectivist world, as exemplified by the Chinese, Japanese and most indigenous communities.1 Children of such cultures are trained to hint to get what they want. The concept of negotiation, in its equivalence, is subtle, implicit and indirect, totally at odds with the idea of confrontation. Little wonder that many untrained cross-cultural negotiators feel disoriented and disheartened (Goh 1996: 86; March 1988: 15). For a Westerner, it is hard to imagine having to wait to be noticed, and to need to decipher the hidden meanings behind words and gestures. This can mean much hard work, and even “meaningless” work. It can also cause a certain amount of trepidation: what if the guess-work is wrong? For the Chinese, on the other hand, it is hard to imagine regularly asserting oneself in a conversation.
Perception is another critical factor in cross-cultural scenarios. Unconsciously or subconsciously, we bring with us our own cultural baggage to the boardroom. Our perception of people and events and things is, in turn, influenced by our underlying assumptions and habits, and frames our reality. It is, therefore, all the more important that we cultivate an awareness of different rules on communication and behavior crucial to a successful untangling of the cross-cultural web.
Take, for instance, the Chinese negotiators who are prone to collectivist patterns of thinking and behavior. Western negotiators who deal with them will be struck by their relational tendencies: a desire for group....
For full contents please purchase The Negotiator’s Desk Reference.
Chen, M. J. 2001. Inside Chinese Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Fung, Y. L. 1948. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, edited by D. Bodde. New York: MacMillan Company.
Goh, B. C. 1996. Negotiating with the Chinese. Aldershot and Brookfield: Dartmouth.
Goh, B. C. 2002. Law without Lawyers, Justice without Courts: On Traditional Chinese Mediation. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
March, R. M. 1988. The Japanese Negotiator: Subtlety and Strategy Beyond Western Logic. New York: Kodansha International.
Moser, M. J. 1982. Law and Social Change in a Chinese Community: A Case Study from Rural Taiwan. London: Oceana Publications Inc.
Pye, L. W. 1982. Chinese Commercial Negotiating Style. Cambridge, MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain.
Yan, Y. X. 1996. The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press.