One of the most important keys to doing business in China is the willingness to modify Western behaviors.

It is pure Western arrogance to go to China and expect to do business as we do in the West. Even with the best of intentions, what works in the West can result in failure in the Far East.

To learn how to communicate with Asians, we need to understand some of the dramatic differences between our cultures. Consciously adapting our behavior out of respect for cultural differences starts the process of building the deep human connection that Asians crave. This emphasis on relationship will build trust and assure loyalty to your organization long into the future.

The Chinese have a deep need for acknowledgment. We all want to be acknowledged-but the Chinese crave it. Anything you can do to reinforce status and respect will repay you in spades. The Chinese need for respect and acknowledgement governs all business communication, not only negotiations. It takes careful training and preparation to avoid costly cross-cultural gaffes.

The Chinese are highly adaptable, anxious to do business, and willing to overlook minor indiscretions. But some Western behaviors can cause loss of face, which can have serious consequences. No one will challenge you directly, because that would be rude. Instead, when you place them in an impossible position, they will go quiet, submissive and outwardly non-resistant. This is the underlying cause of costly delays and errors.

Once we know the Western behaviors that elicit passive resistance, we can make the small changes that have a major impact on productivity.


The Western system rewards independent decision-making. We value individual accountability and are taught to ask to speak directly to the decision-maker. When customer issues arise, we demand that someone take responsibility.

In China, while the senior person makes major decisions, lesser decisions are reached by consensus. In the latter case, no one person is responsible.

When you pressure your Asian colleagues for a decision, you are asking them to defy their instincts, culture and training. They will not act, because they cannot act alone-and the decision will stall.

To speed the decision process, slow down. Make sure that all parties receive the same detailed information. Keep everyone in the loop.


The freewheeling Western brainstorming practice goes against strict hierarchical codes of conduct. Successful brainstorming requires that everyone's ideas be treated equally. But in a status-conscious culture where acknowledging rank is critical to maintaining face, where everyone is taught to take business seriously and not make mistakes, this presents an impossible situation.

It is best to avoid this Western approach. Problem-solve logically. Allow one person to speak at a time. Defer to the one in authority. Start from the beginning and work through to a solution in a logical, step-by-step fashion.

Information Management

Westerners have the tendency to come to the conversation only partially prepared. They feel confident in their ability to wing it. If they don't have all the necessary information, they will provide it later.

However, Chinese are offended by partial answers. Lack of preparedness can cause loss of face and loss of trust.

Since an Asian won't get back to you until all the facts are known, break your requests for information into smaller segments.

Prepare for every interaction. Do not present an idea or theory that has not been fully researched, proven or studied beforehand. Do not risk looking unprepared by deluging your Asian contact with partial answers and frequent updates.

If you are unable to provide a complete response, acknowledge the request; apologize for the inconvenience; and then provide a complete and accurate response when the facts are in.

Document in writing and in detail. Make sure your facts are 100 percent accurate in every detail. You will lose credibility if there are errors and these will be used against you later.

Present your ideas in stages. Prepare each document as a stand-alone file, with background, rationale, analysis and logic built into the text. Write clearly, using plain English text. Use visuals at every opportunity, including sketches, charts and diagrams to appeal to the visual bias of many Asians.

Keep everyone in the communication loop by copying them on all written and e-mail follow-up correspondence.

It helps to understand that most of your Asian colleagues are not fluent in spoken English. This causes shame. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to think that they really understand what you say. This false assumption can prove costly. Most Asians understand far less than we think they do. They smile and nod and we interpret that to mean the communication is understood.

Fortunately, small changes in behavior can have a major impact on results. As an example, the way to communicate clearly is to talk in short sentences. Listen more than you speak. Pause between sentences. Find four or five easy ways to say the same thing. Never ask a question that can be answered with a simple "Yes." Avoid all slang. And skip the humor altogether!

MIA DOUCET works with companies that want to hone their
cross-cultural strategy and increase competitiveness
in the Asia Pacific. For more information go to