Strategy

Foreign affairs: Saving face time

Knowing a few ancient secrets can make doing business in China a whole lot easier.

Nobody likes to be reminded of death — especially during dinner. Take the Chinese. They don’t leave chopsticks pointing upward in a bowl of rice, because it resembles incense sticks burned at funerals. Canadians who know this and China’s other cultural nuances, such as the concept of “face” — which requires maintaining everyone’s status in the most flattering light — will likely make a good first impression. But landing a deal takes more than avoiding offensive gestures. It requires fostering informal relationships.

These connections are vital, since key details about a potential partnership often emerge during small talk rather than in formal meetings. “People in China do not communicate or do business in a direct manner,” says Carla Kearns, a managing director at Toronto-based TLI-The Mandarin School, which offers executive training for visitors to the Asian country. This is particularly true of bad news, she adds. In China, restaurants can be a good place for casual discussions. But want to really endear yourself? Suggest a night of karaoke following the meal. “Not many westerners will do that, but it’s really welcomed, and everyone gets to have fun and laugh together,” Kearns says.

Of course, corporate reps shouldn’t be chosen for their singing abilities. The more senior the people, the better. Women can also be effective team members since there are no issues with females being in the corporate world and many have achieved senior positions in China. They can be particularly valuable for Canadian firms if they bring a softer approach during negotiations. But, above all else, those selected should be individuals who will remain employees for a long time. “Relationships in China are person-to-person. If the person leaves, those relationships don’t stay with the company,” Kearns says.

When hosting Chinese companies in Canada, small touches are appreciated. For example, offer green tea and hot water instead of hot coffee and cold water. Showcasing the country’s natural habitat is also a good move. “One Chinese business person once told me, ‘It’s our wish that Canadians will become more romantic and do business on the water or in the forest,’” Kearns says.

Sharing enjoyable times with Chinese partners helps form relationships. Lasting ones, though, come from deals that go beyond making money to include benefits for local workers and communities. Despite the country’s reputation as one of the world’s worst polluters, environmentally friendly business practices are gaining popularity. “In Chinese philosophy, it’s critical to be in harmony with nature, and the people have recognized that harmony has been destroyed,” Kearns says.

When it comes time to dissolve a Chinese partnership, blame must not be assigned, and the possibility for future deals should remain open. That ensures everyone saves face. This approach may lack closure by Canadian standards, but for the Chinese it’s perfectly normal.