Doing Business In China – Body Language, Lost In Translation

We are often led to believe that the non-verbal forms of our communication are so culturally bound that they are indelible and always remain with you even after living a lengthy time in a second culture.

This is far from the truth. The culturally bound, non-verbal habits of your native culture can often be over-ridden in spite of the inborn natural predilection of cultural blueprinting.

Most often, North American and European companies wishing to expand in China will send over their local ‘new market expert’ to initiate contact with local authorities and business leaders. Equipped with the socially proper forms of introduction; the acceptable patterns for exchanging business cards; the appropriate level of gift giving along with best wishes and the encouraging advice of “Go get’um cowboy!, the poorly prepared candidate doesn’t realize the formidable task before him or her.

Rarely, the company will leap for joy, when they realize that they have a native born Mainland Chinese employee on staff and he or her is given the task of opening up the new territory in the expectation that sending back the expatriate to do the job gives the home company a great advantage.

Certainly, the ability to speak the host country’s language is a distinct and valuable advantage. But it is not the key to success by a long shot.

For example, I was recently in a series of meetings where just this sort of unhappy scenario occurred. The company was marketing a software bundle to a Beijing Company, for the burgeoning Chinese real estate market. Two of the Canadian company’s employees were native born Chinese who had immigrated to Canada over 8 and 12 years ago, respectively. There was a key Beijing resident point man who had all the connections required to introduce the Canadian company to the Beijing authorities. It should have been a reasonably easy project since all of the necessary components for successful communication were in place.

But something wasn’t going well.

The first meetings went as expected. The point man was graciously received by the hosts and the meetings started with acceptably low level representatives. Apologies were given for the absence of higher representatives. The reasons for their absence were acceptable since these introductory meetings were necessary in any event.

After two such meetings there was a stall to meet the higher decision makers. Continuing excuses and apologies were forthcoming and time went on. These circumstances can be expected and are often used as a negotiating tactic when dealing with foreigners who the Chinese regard as too eager to make deals. The strategy is meant to frustrate the foreigners and to agitate their natural impatience so as to extort concessions during final negotiations. The two native Chinese employees were aware of this tactic but were not influenced by the circumstances. Like their Canadian colleagues, having lived in the foreign influence for 8 to 12 years, in spite of their cultural blueprint, they were becoming more and more impatient.

Another meeting was finally arranged with more low level and intermediate level Beijing representatives but still the absence of the decision makers of whom apologies were again offered.

During the meeting I had the opportunity to observe everyone’s body language. Here it was helpful to understand which gestures were universal and which were culturally bound. The universal gestures, such as facial tics and eye contact should have been apparent to everyone, including the two Chinese Canadians. But they were ignored, having been overtaken by the new cultural standards they had been living under for a decade.

Finally, quite uncharacteristically, one of the Chinese Canadians shouted out his uncontained frustration and anger at the slow progress. The point man, a native Chinese, who should have been able to read the body language of his own countrymen, also shouted uncharacteristically, threatening to pull all of his financial support out of the project.

Such behavior is regarded as the most unacceptable behavior in any meeting or company in China. It causes the ‘lost face’ of both parties since one is shamed and the other is embarrassed for them. After some calming and soothing efforts by the hosts it was agreed to close the meetings for now and resume later when the decision maker could finally attend the meetings. This seemed to placate all those who had registered their vociferous complaints.

What went wrong? Why didn’t the Canadian company ever get anywhere with what was clearly a great product and one which everyone agreed could be put to good use and make a profit for everyone?

First of all the Chinese Canadians had forgotten the explicit non-verbal signs of their native cultural. They ignored the fact that the hosts, although showing outward respect for the point man were not going further than the intermediate stage which should have indicated that there was something superficial about the relationship between the point man and the hosts. He in fact had exaggerated the positive aspects of the relationship which as it happens did not run as deep as needed in these circumstances. This fact was apparent at different times. For example, the point man’s seating position in the meetings was relegated to a diminishing placement in the various meetings. If this had been noticed by the Chinese Canadians, it was misinterpreted as a sign that the hosts wanted to speak more candidly with the Canadian guests. As time went on, the hosts began to discount the comments of the point man which is very uncharacteristic This would never have happened if the point man held a prestigious place in his relationship with the Chinese hosts.

I later learned from a candid conversation with a nephew of the high ranking decision maker that the government had done business with the point man in the past but the relationship had deteriorated since. The offer of initial meetings was based on the appearance of respect in efforts to avoid unpleasantness. But the invitation was construed as a green light for the project. Also, when the two incidents of shouting occurred it should have been abundantly clear to the two Chinese Canadians that something was terribly wrong. If the relationship was solid this would never have occurred. Yet, the whole Canadian party held out for more than another month at great expense to the company, in the false hope of another meeting.

I have since witnessed several other similar meetings with English, German, American and South African companies to whom I have offered advice.

I cautioned each company, prepare your employees and representatives with knowledge that they can use when coming to do business in China. Arming them with superficial knowledge of greeting courtesies and gift giving rules just isn’t enough if you want to be successful. Teach them communication skills and especially appropriate non-verbal awareness and behaviour.