Understanding Chinese Culture

Everything started out perfect. I was not doing business in China. I was just traveling in Taiwan. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I was treated. Everyone was very helpful. Some gave me rides. Others bought me lunch. Yet others helped me find an apartment. I soon found work and lots of new friends. People were far more polite than those I’d left behind in Colorado. Any China vet will tell you that the people I am talking about were all trying to build a relationship/develop Guanxi with me.

But then things changed. I noticed that while some people were incredibly nice, it almost seemed like I did not exist to others. I was bumped into with no comment, nearly run off the road on my scooter and had people cut directly in front of me in line. It left me feeling baffled.

In Chinese culture, Rules are Made to be Broken. The article to the left has been a little popular in social media. It describes how an elderly gentleman died because it took an ambulance 40 minutes to drive three kilometers. I have read several explanations. Someone said that it is the same everywhere. Someone else attributed the problem to the lack of rule of law (really the lack of enforcement) in China. I don’t really think it is the same everywhere. It is hard to argue that people in Beijing are just as polite as those in a cozy little town in the US. (Of course in certain circumstances, they simply are not.) The truth is that how someone is polite and how much people value being polite differs throughout the world.

So what does this have to do with doing business in China? Everything. If you want to be successful at doing business in China, you have to build relationships. If you want to do that, you need to understand the people. One key piece of understanding China is how they treat people they know (in group) and how they treat people they don’t know (out group.) If you are in the “in group,” you are to be trusted and you can place a little more trust in those around you. Just be sure that you have genuine positive relationships with your potential business partners and that any deals make good business sense for both sides both short and long term. If you are in the out group, you just are not important. Beware of working towards business deals in this situation. You are asking to be taken advantage of.

As a foreigner, doing business in China, you are in both groups. You are a guest so you are to be treated as if you were in the “in group,” but you are also a potential business partner to be evaluated to see if you are a good person to do business with. That places you distinctly in the out group. How you are treated here depends in large part on who needs the business deal more. It’s also worth noting that even though you are just having tea or drinking bai jiu, you are already negotiating that business deal.

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  1. […] Fast-forward to last week. I was attending a local event for international business executives accompanied by my Taiwanese client. As she and I made our rounds through the room talking with our international peers, we would frequently fall into Chinese cycle of giving and rejecting compliments (sometimes in English and sometimes in my broken Chinese). Ching-Yen would say how smart I was. I would, of course, deflect her compliment “oh no – you are much smarter than me”.  Ching-Yen would deflect my compliment with something else and around we would go in the Chinese cultural pattern.  While I will always consider myself a “wai-guo-ren” (foreigner) to Chinese culture, I am a student always eager to learn my experiences and those of others. Speaking of others, here’s a great article from my friend, Mike Black on Understanding Chinese Culture. […]

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