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Lost in Translation

Do’s and Don’ts: Tips on doing business in China.

‘No problem’ is a common phrase used by the Chinese. It does not, however, actually mean ‘we don’t have problems here’; it is normally used as a friendly expression by Chinese people to engage an English speaker. As business increases between the East and West, giving a good impression and ensuring a professional relationship may not always be easy. After all even if both parties are from the same culture, issues are almost inevitable, but where there are problems there can be solutions.

Following is a shortlist of some tips that offer some insight into some of the do’s and don’ts in contemporary China. There are different practices in different parts of Asia, some are more Westernized than others, for instance in Hong Kong and Singapore business meetings and contracts can be conducted in English. However this may not be the case for Mainland China, the doors are open for business to the West, but there could be some social and cultural practices that make it a challenging process. In other words, doing business in China may come as a reality check for many, where good business judgment and plans could be clouded by cultural or social differences. So rather than have awkward looks and silences, communication could be lost in translation. This commentary therefore offers some interesting and insightful points which offer a general guide to your next encounter with Chinese businesses.

√ This Time It’s Personal

Your friendship and relationship network is the key to everything in China. Try to become friends with everyone, and keep it personal. You may have the best deal and the most enticing offer, but in the end that’s just business. Your Chinese counterpart may well be asking ‘What’s in this for me, personally?’ They are far more likely to sign a contract with someone they know and trust, so getting to know them is even more important than discussing the details of your contract. A good bottle of scotch and a box of cigars have much the same implications as they do in the West, and may just speed things along.

√ Always Have Your Cards Handy

Business cards are important. Please ensure you acknowledge and compliment your Chinese counterparts’ business titles printed on their cards. Titles are everything in China — they might not always be explanatory but are significant.

√ Respect Authority

Of all the friends you make in China, the government officials are the most important. They will sign the authorizations and certificates. In other words, they are your local business guarantor who will make or break your deal.
√ Be Generous

Be aware of all favors done for you, and be prepared to respond in kind.

√ Look for the Signals

Don’t look surprised about the expectation of offering a bribe, as you may well encounter this sooner or later. If you don’t recall receiving any signals, this may explain why things are not running so smoothly at present.

√ Bring Your own Interpreter

It is always wise to have your own interpreter with whom you maintain a long-term relationship. They can interpret for you not just the literal meaning of words, but also the social implications, and spot signals you may have missed. However, you cannot always assume a third-party interpreter will be impartial and accurate.

√ Talk the Talk

Learn a few basic Chinese words and sentences. This is a great icebreaker — but make sure you get the vernacular right. Do your associates speak Cantonese, Mandarin, or a regional dialect such as Shanghaiese?

√ Any Other Name

Acquire a Chinese name for your business. Do however always check what it means. Chinese is phonetic so you need to make sure it doesn’t sound like something unflattering. The last thing you need is a name that makes you sound ridiculous; for example, the name Marcus translated incorrectly could sound like “horse manure.”

K. Song & Max Dobson are correspondents for Chinascope.