China – Talking Business and Peeling Onions


If the title caught your attention and you decided to read on, I assume that you either want a better understanding of foreign business culture, or you like to cook. 

Whatever the reason is, keep reading and we’ll help you decode some key cultural behaviours and prevent misunderstandings with your Chinese business partners.

two women interacting

Cultural mind games.

Assuming that you have previous experience of Chinese business culture and it’s had you puzzled at times, does any of the following sound familiar?

You’re unsure about meeting etiquette and how to introduce yourself.
You don’t know if you should “do” small talk or skip straight to business.
You feel as though you are not trusted enough.
You endure a marathon of a sales cycle.
You get lost in a multi-layered decision-making process.
You rack your brains trying to interpret ambiguous answers.
You struggle to “read between the lines”.

Let’s discuss why you’ve faced these problems and how you can avoid them in the future.

Start. Trust and Relationships.

Consider these two factors:
1. Chinese culture is high-context (Hall, 1976). This means that a large part of communication happens non-verbally, and the meaning is primarily derived from the context and setting.
2. Chinese culture is collectivist (Hofstede, 2001). Genuine trust, strong relationships, and one’s image in the public eye are the main driving force for actions and decisions.

For these reasons, Chinese business owners prefer a phone call to email, a video call to phone, and face-to-face meeting to video call.

No real deal will be sealed until the parties establish solid relationships and 100% ‘trust’.

Saving face and Responsibility for Decisions

You heard the word “yes” amongst other positive cues throughout your meeting; you might even have come to an agreement in the meeting. However, when you followed up the next day the response was “we have to think it over”. “Did I miss something?”, you wonder. Trying to make sense of, what feels like, mixed signals can lead to frustration.

Why does it happen?
No matter how big the deal is, you probably won’t be speaking to the main decision-maker. 

The reason for that is the Chinese Face-Saving etiquette.

The concept of Face is somewhat similar to the western “respect” or “honour” but refers to the person’s image in public opinion, rather than their own perception of themself.  

Being praised by others helps a person ‘gain face’, while receiving criticism or dissatisfaction makes a person ‘lose face’. Face-saving behavior is aimed to preserve one’s ‘face’ in the public eyes.

Stressful and tense situations such as business negotiations are also a risk factor when it comes to the concept of Face. In fact, the bigger the deal and higher the pressure, the more likely the decision-maker is to send someone in their place else for the talks and give you ‘promises’. 

What should you do?

You definitely need to reach the main decision-maker in the business and you will only discover who this person is through a long series of meetings. 

This leads us to the next point.

What’s common between relationships and onions?

The answer is layers. 

When you first meet someone, you’re on the first layer of the ‘onion’. The more you get to know someone, the more layers of the onion are peeled off. Once you’ve gained their absolute trust, you’ve reached the centre, or the ‘inner social circle’ (Altman & Taylor, 1973).

As was mentioned above, relationships are key in the Chinese business culture. So, your goal is to form solid high-trust relationships with your partners. Of course, that doesn’t happen in a day and is rather built over time during numerous personal meetings and phone/video conversations.

Peeling Onions.

It’s not acceptable in the Chinese business culture to pitch and sell right away. So, be prepared for the series of meetings which can feel like a long and slow process to the uninitiated.

If you look at how big businesses negotiate in China, the extravagance may astound you: high-end welcoming activities, fine dining and expensive gifts. 

This doesn’t mean that for one day of negotiations you need to invest your entire annual marketing budget, especially if you’re not Apple, Royal Dutch Shell, or Google. Just keep this cultural consideration in mind. The resources you’re willing to invest into building and strengthening the relationships directly reflect your desire to cooperate.

And Finally

Rid your mind of stereotypes and generalizations.

Consider your own culture. Let’s say you’re a native English-speaking citizen of Australia living in New South Wales. Would you agree that people there are totally identical to the residents of Queensland? Are Australians the same as New Zealanders since they all speak English? It sounds absurd when you think of your own culture in this way. 

However, we tend to do it when thinking of other cultures, consciously or not. Our mind is to blame for playing this generalization game to us. Through simplification, our brain attempts to categorize and explain anything that is foreign and incomprehensible.

Going back to who you think of when you talk about “Chinese people”. The reality is that you are thinking of people who come from different countries or regions and speak different languages or dialects. In Hong Kong, the vast majority of people speak Cantonese, which is hugely different from the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan and Mainland China. In turn, Mandarin in Taiwan is not the same as in China. 

Bottom line: there’s no such universal ethnicity and language as “Chinese”.


Altman,  I.,  &  Taylor,  D.  A.  (1973).  Social penetration:  The development of interpersonal relationships. Oxford, England: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Altman, I. & Taylor, D. A. (1973), Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. Oxford, England: Holt, Rinchart & Winston.

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Hofstede, G. (2001) [1984]. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organizations across nations. London: Sage.

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