Whether it's trying to hire a more cost-effective manufacturer or looking for a new market for your product, you might be considering a business partner in another country. Having worked many years with persons from all over the world, I've experienced firsthand what problems can arise due to differences in language and culture.

In the coming months, I'll be dedicating specific articles here on Inc. to my 'Going Global' series. In them, I hope to spread some knowledge gained by experienced companies and entrepreneurs located across the world.

1. Relationships are the key to everything.

If this is true in the U.S., it's a hundred times more true in China.

"Good relationships are the key to everything, regardless of job level or industry", says Robert Bravo (current managing director of Compass Corporate Training, a consultancy in Shanghai City, China). He explains:

Rapport building can be done in many scenarios and in many ways: a networking event, dinner with a potential partner, making a client visit, etc. It's not uncommon to spend hours with a potential client over an expensive dinner, talking about seemingly unrelated topics. To the foreigner, this might seem like a total waste, but it can mean the difference between success or failure. Its good to note that more traditional Chinese business people likely value these occasions even more.

For example, a joint venture company recently sought our services after receiving a good recommendation from a previous client. Often times a couple of meetings and emails would suffice to seal a contract. But this more traditional management team indirectly asked for some time face-to-face. A colleague and I flew to western China and spent two days touring and dining with the clients management team. We didn't talk business once.

To a budget conscious American like myself, this could be a tough expense to swallow. But the investment paid off a week later, when we signed a long term contract.

2. Small talk's important. But it's just the beginning.

Bravo continues:

Most Chinese are more shy by nature than the average Westerner. Therefore, its important to take initiative. Your ultimate objective is to help the other person feel comfortable, eliminating any suspicion or awkwardness. Look for positive conversation topics. Chinese cuisine is always a winner; Chinese are universally passionate about their food, and love educating Westerners on the subject. After a few minutes of good small talk and a little laughter, you might shoot for a deeper connection.

On Robert's recommendation, I read the book Think Like Chinese, by Zhang Haihua and Geoff Baker. It's a fascinating read that explains Chinese thought and business culture from both the Chinese and Western perspective. (The authors are a husband and wife team made up of a Chinese woman married to an Australian man.)

Just a few gems from the book:

3. The Chinese concept of mianzi ('face') is extremely important.

It's extremely important to never make a person "lose face" by criticizing, ignoring, or making fun of them. What seems harmless to you may be terribly insulting to a Chinese person.

4. The Chinese definition of leadership differs greatly from that of the Western world.

The Chinese concepts of leadership, effective management, and team work are very different from what you might think of. Simply put, the Chinese view of leadership is 'whoever is in charge'.

After explaining the historical reasons behind this, the authors state:

Western leadership, that is, the ability to guide, direct or influence people, is a concept that is quite foreign to the Chinese. In the eyes of Chinese, whoever has the authority or power automatically becomes the leader regardless of their ability to influence people...Such a person's leadership skills are not questioned--their position is respected, not their skills.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Further reading about the Chinese concepts of leadership, hierarchy, and giving direction can greatly aid you in communicating with Chinese partners.

5. Why the Chinese (almost) never say no.

Generally speaking, Chinese communication is more indirect than English. Telling someone 'no' directly may seem disrespectful. Keeping in line with the concept of mianzi, many Chinese believe that saying 'no' to someone will make the other person lose 'face'. They don't want to show disrespect to you, your hard work, or your expertise, so they communicate in a more indirect style.

This information can be helpful, especially when negotiating. Many times, a Chinese person will say something like: 'I agree with what you said, but...' In this statement, the 'but' could indicate that in reality, the person totally disagrees.

If you find the need to disagree, doing so in an indirect way ('Perhaps we can come back to that' or 'I may need to check with my partner before deciding on that issue') will often be appreciated by your Chinese counterpart.

6. Understand which Chinese people you're dealing with.

Stereotyping is a typically dangerous practice. But the sheer size of China complicates matters even more. As the authors explain:

[China] is like a collection of diverse nations within a common economic boundary. Just like the British don't always see eye-to-eye with the French, similar regional differences exist in China. For example, people in Beijing are different in many ways to those in Shanghai. China is one of the most diverse countries in the world.

So, remember: What you've learned about Chinese culture will differ depending on which part of China you're dealing with. Get to know a local partner by following the relationship building advice above. Work on building trust with them, and this can be the stepping stone to expanding your network.

Learning to do business with Chinese partners brings along a unique set of challenges. But a rapidly growing market and huge number of skilled professionals could make it well worth your while.

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(If you're looking for an interesting blog about Chinese culture and business, I recommend Sean Upton-McLaughlin's The China Culture Corner.)

Published on: Jan 20, 2015
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