American Negotiating Culture – Through the Eyes of the Chinese Counterparty

Attention Americans negotiating in China: Here at we spend a lot of time discussing the various attitudes, propensities and quirks of Chinese negotiators – and heaven knows there are more than a few. But turnabout is fair play, so let’s take a moment to consider what we Americans are doing to our poor, beleaguered Chinese counterparties. Crazy as it sounds, Americans have a negotiating culture of our own, and other people have to contend with our peculiar negotiating style.

American cultural quirks that Chinese have to put up with:

  • First and foremost – we are the only negotiating culture that leads with the lawyers.
    Manage Conflict in Chinese Business

    Europeans consider negotiation to be an exercise in diplomacy while Asians consider it the province of paternalistic company leaders to build lasting relationships. American negotiators – even when they are salesmen or purchasing managers – are fixated on contracts and legal institutions (like courts and regulations). Whereas traditional Asian negotiators feel that relationships are the key to business and that contracts are merely written records of agreements between individuals, Americans put more weight on the document than on the human bonds between business leaders.

  • We are the only negotiating culture that believes that liability can be assigned in advance through a contract. This is one of the many aspects of international negotiation that has become “normal”, but it still strikes traditional Asian negotiators as crazy that Americans consider contracts binding even as the market environment changes. Asian negotiators in general, and Chinese in particular, feel that as the external situation evolves, so must a business relationship. Many Chinese partners have been bewildered and disappointed when their American partner stated waving a piece of paper in their face instead of responding fairly and maturely to new market realities.
  • Americans believe that negotiations end. To Chinese, the negotiation is part-and-parcel of the business relationship. As long as the counterparties are still engaged in business, the negotiation is supposed to continue. What’s the point of taking the time to build a connection if you aren’t going to grow the relationship through continuous give and take?
  • Americans want to decide everything in advance and put procedures ahead of human decisions. Chinese (and most other Asian) negotiators understand that conflict and differences of opinion are inevitable, and their business agreements usually assume that the leaders or concerned parties from each side will work things out informally. American contracts, with their penalty clauses and rigid requirements, are not only insulting and arbitrary, but seem designed to undermine any kind of positive relationship.
  • Americans love deadlines, timetables and schedules, even when there is no business rationale for them. They can be arbitrary and illogical.
  • Most disturbing of all, American negotiators are adversarial and rude. We insist on running everything and taking control of situations that we don’t understand. We are famous for coming to China and trying to sell inappropriate products or services at ridiculous prices. Our technology and designs are nice enough, but we expect people to pay over and over for the same thing – even after their people have figured out how to make it themselves.

I’m not proposing that we give up our way of doing things – and I certainly understand the value of contracts and compliance with regulatory codes. It’s important, however, to acknowledge that the American way of negotiating is not the only way, and the Chinese person across from you is struggling just as hard as you are to successfully manage the yawning gap between your cultures.

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