Negotiating in China: Its Complicated.

It’s very complicated.

To an American negotiator the phrase ‘it’s very complicated’ carries a negative connotation. Americans view this statement as qualifying, foreboding, concealing, warning, dangerous, opaque, dishonest, tricky – and yeah, a little girly. Americans like straight-forward, transparent deals – and straight-forward, transparent deal partners.

To a Chinese negotiator this is a neutral qualification of value. If a situation is complicated then it enhances the Chinese side’s position as a partner and guide. Chinese view complexity as a sign of maturity, opportunity, comprehensiveness and sophistication. Chinese like complex, multi-faceted agreements that provide a range of opportunities and the ability to change with the circumstances of the moment. Chinese expect their deals to contain a good deal more flexibility and ‘wiggle room’ than Americans do, so a certain amount of complexity is desirable.

    Chinese synonyms for ‘complex’ – special, deep, valuable, sublime, rich in opportunity and potential.

    American synonyms – cumbersome, unclear, mysterious, confused, poorly planned.

In American management, the ability to ‘lay things out in a straight line’ and get right to the heart of the matter is considered the highest form of business communication. Your Chinese counter-parties, however, tend to consider this brutish and unsophisticated. To him the ability to re-visit and reinterpret statements is an important risk-control technique, and Chinese negotiators will sometimes intentionally inject a bit of vagueness or ambiguity into the conversation.

American negotiators coming to China (and more and more, hosting Chinese negotiators in the US) sometimes miss this cultural disconnect because it is a little subtle and doesn’t usually appear until fairly late in the conversation. If you find that you and your Chinese counter-party start out agreeing on big-picture goals but never seem to drill down to specific points, then this divergent view of the nature of complexity may be a contributor. Remember – it’s not a language or translation issue. Chinese and Americans have different mindsets and values. You may have to work a bit to overcome this – and to avoid unintentionally pissing one another off.

Put another way – you want to nail down your deal, but he doesn’t want to get pinned down to a commitment that may hurt him later.

Hope that’s clear and simple enough for y’all now.

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