Book cover Having read some notices by various highly credentialed people about a new book to be launched on July 7, Think Like Chinese, by HANG Haihua and Geoff Baker, I know this is a book I must have and preferably before I go on my next trip to China in mid July.

I’m especially interested in what the book might contain to help me with understanding processes of business negotiation in China and the underpinning cultural considerations.

Years ago, while studying for my BA, I had the opportunity to observe some ways of negotiation by some Chinese people, ways that were different from what I’d previously known and practiced. Whether or not it was “typical”, It was certainly an eye opener.

The background is that I had accepted an invitation to be a committee member of the Sydney University Chinese Students Association (SUCSA). I was designated a “floating member”, which I assumed was a way of indicating politely that, although a committee member, I was not Chinese (not even a Chinese speaker). In the circumstances I felt honoured to be on the committee and I found the experience culturally rewarding.

One thing I realised early on, in meetings, was that there was a way I had grown up with to explore and resolve issues in meetings and there was another way, which seemed initially more directly and even personally confrontational, but actually seemed to result in better solutions than sometimes emerged in meetings I attended in other contexts – more Western, if you like. Whether what I observed in those meetings of the Chinese Students Association was “typical” of meetings of Chinese associations I have no way of knowing, but it was different to everything I had observed previously.

And it wasn’t that I’d led a completely sheltered life: in my teens I had joined the Australian Labor Party and some of their branch meetings were not exactly Sunday School picnics when it came to arguments about policies, procedures, allegiances of individuals and other such topics as make for vigorous political debate.

Back to the book.

It’s a cliché to say that Westerners wanting to do business in China ignore at their peril the fact that there are many cultural differences, hidden shoals of misunderstanding, waiting to wreck or seriously damage even the most well-intentioned of business ventures.

But where do you start in trying to gain an understanding of how you need to proceed, what you need to do and avoid, especially if you do not speak or read Chinese?

From comments I have read so far by others who have read Think Like Chinese, this book looks like it could be a very good place to start. Indeed, it looks as if this is truly essential reading for anyone from foreign shores who feels the urge to explore possibilities in the booming China market. Or who, like me, already has some business interests in China, but knows he or she still has a lot to learn.

Some specific practical issues the book covers:

  • how to ensure spoken communications are being interpreted accurately
  • understanding the importance of “face” (mianzi), and giving and receiving mianzi appropriately
  • networking effectively among the Chinese
  • understanding Chinese work cultures, identifying the real Chinese decision-makers, improving negotiations, and gaining the best out of Chinese staff
  • distinguishing “cow poo” (facts or true statements) from “hooyou” (bragging or bullshit)
  • knowing when a Chinese ‘yes’ actually means ‘yes’, instead of ‘maybe’ or ‘no’
  • Chinese approaches to the law and contracts, dispute resolution, intellectual property, investment and partnerships.

I’ll be interested to see if the book has any advice on dining with Chinese people. From everything I’ve learned, Chinese people have a great appreciation of food. And I certainly love Chinese food. But there is a question that sticks in my mind from those days of being on the Chinese Students Association committee.

After Association meetings we used to all go out to dinner in Sydney’s Chinatown – not just the committee members but everyone who had been at the meeting, including those who had been metaphorically “at daggers drawn” with one another in the meeting and had sometimes denounced one another in the most robust of terms, but were now in apparent harmony.

The first time I went, when the meal was being served, people hoed in, each for their share. I was trying to speak to the student next to me: he said (quickly, as I recall) “Des, something you need to understand if you’re going to eat with us. First we eat, then we talk. If you want to talk, you’ll miss out.”

It was not the way I’d been brought up. I changed, at least for those occasions after Association meetings.

But my question is – was that a Chinese thing, or was it just that we were students and by definition hungry?

I didn’t ask at the time (I ate). Maybe the Think Like Chinese book will have an answer.

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).