Comparative Negotiating Styles 101: US and Europeans in China

Negotiating styles in China.

Americans, Europeans and Chinese negotiators can all reach great deals, but their approaches and styles differ.  One is not necessarily better than the others, but each style of negotiator has to align with the prevailing environment and set appropriate goals.

  • Americans are take-charge aggressors. They want to control and lead everything.
  • Europeans are diplomats.  They build networks and exploit niches.
  • Chinese are manipulators.  They like to build relationships – often from a position of apparent weakness – and later shift the balance of power to their advantage.

American deal-makers in China like to start out from a position of strength, which some negotiators equate with power and toughness.  Their plan is to intimidate early and then become nicer and more cooperative later on, as a concession.  To Americans, the relationship is the reward.  Unfortunately, this often triggers aggressively competitive behavior from the Chinese side, since they interpret the initial American position (aggressive tough-guy) as a rejection of Chinese relationship-building overtures.  Even though the American plans on ending up with a cordial relationship, it can be hard to put this train back on track if there is a misunderstanding in the early days.

Europeans in China have the opposite problem.  Natural networkers, Europeans are quick to make concessions to build a connection. This pliability on key issues is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, and once the conceding begins it is difficult to put on the brakes.  Chinese negotiators may feel like they are driving the relationship and will become more competitive and demanding.  Europeans will do more deals, but at less advantageous terms than might be possible.

Europeans see themselves as occupying a position midway between Chinese guanxi-builders and American dominators, but Chinese see them as American-lite.  Europeans in China do build better networks, though, mainly because they plan for and invest in them as a matter of strategy.  They send younger people over for longer postings.  Americans would rather buy or bully than build, and tend to make up a plan as they go along.  They see themselves as nimble and resourceful, while the Chinese tend to see them as unprepared.

The key to successful Chinese negotiation is to start out cordial but non-committal.  As the Chinese say, it is best to have many girlfriends but no wife.  Americans tend to do the opposite. They like to talk tough and play hard-to-get during courtship, but beneath the surface are as monogamous as the Puritan stock from which they spring.  This gives them the worst of both worlds – putting them in a weak position with a monopolistic service provider.  Americans could learn from the Europeans, who try to put Chinese on their back foot by committing early to a relationship in principle, but being vague about timetables and promiscuous about relationships.

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