US-China Negotiation and the Non-Universality of Values

A new semester at NYU in Shanghai has started which means that I am coming into contact with a large group of newcomers to China. Since my course is about international negotiation the subject of culture comes up early & often. I try to set some ground rules at the start of the semester — and they can be as useful for business people in China as for students.

Mainland China and the US are separate and distinct cultures that do not share identical values, attitudes or morals. It isn’t racist to say that Chinese and Americans have different definitions of truth, honesty or fairness. The key to good international negotiating is to develop a process for understanding, testing and forming agreements at the most basic level. It doesn’t do any good to work out complex power-sharing formulas if you and your counter-party unwittingly disagree about the meaning of ‘agreement’.

Generalization vs. Stereotypes
All business theory (and most of the social sciences) is based on some degree of generalization. Being able to make statements about the behavior, proclivities and methods of large numbers of people is the stock & trade of researchers, educators and marketers. There is nothing wrong with making generalizations about people – provided that such generalizations A) strive for accuracy, B) evolve and improve and C) attempt to capture actual, recognizable groups. None of this is easy and generations of social scientists and researchers have devoted entire careers to the pursuit of better & more accurate generalizations. The struggle continues.

Stereotypes are negative and unproductive simply because they do NOT strive for accuracy, seek to evolve or attempt to capture actual, recognizable groups. Generalizations tend to spark discussion and debate – stereotypes act to silence discussion and retard understanding.


Generalization: Americans tends to regard written contracts as authoritative, specific, legally binding commitments while Mainland Chinese tend to see them as general agreements between parties at the time of signing.

Stereotype: Chinese people never honor their agreements and can’t be trusted.

The above example of generalization (if it is indeed accurate) is acceptable in a business situation. The stereotype is harmful, counter-productive and just plain wrong.

Reverse Racism – Assuming Universal Values.
Some newcomers to China are appalled by any and all assertions that Chinese people behave differently or have different priorities than westerners. Students (and first-time visitors to China) often have difficulty acknowledging that the US is itself a culture. They sometimes fail to see that other people have attitudes, beliefs and values that are equally valid and fully formed. This leads to a strange reverse racism. “How dare you say that Group X doesn’t have the same morals, beliefs, priorities and taboos as my group? That’s racist!”

Actually, assuming that YOUR value system is universal, valid and so obviously superior that it sets the standard for everyone else is racist and bigoted – even if you do it unwittingly. It isn’t racist to assert that Chinese don’t traditionally respect contracts – but it is a bit racist to assume that Chinese believe that they should have the same attitudes as Americans. Asserting that Chinese counter-parties are every bit as honest and trustworthy as American counter-parties is wrong for many reasons – but mostly because it is condescending, culture-centric and not necessarily accurate. (Also, because experienced business people know that Americans aren’t winning any prizes for honesty and integrity in their deal making practices, but that’s another can of worms.)

Negotiating Values
Experienced international business people know that the best negotiations are the ones that arrive at a true meeting of the minds between counter-parties at every step in the process. Cultural difference makes that challenging but not impossible. Smart negotiators will turn weakness into strength by discussing basic, naïve issues early in the process. Traditional Chinese counter-parties are famous for their relationship-building socializing – which plays a strong due-diligence role and helps them understand more about the values and attitudes of their counter-parties. Western negotiators can save themselves a great deal of post-negotiation frustration and failure by spending more time establishing understanding about basic goals and values and worrying less about technical deal-points and formulas.

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