Metacommunication Effects on International Business Negotiating in China

By Gilsdorf, Jeanette W. | Business Communication Quarterly, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Metacommunication Effects on International Business Negotiating in China


Gilsdorf, Jeanette W., Business Communication Quarterly


Many businesspeople, lulled by the worldwide use of English as a major language of trade, underestimate the difficulty of communicating abroad, especially in Asia, where so many cultural assumptions differ from those of mainstream U.S. culture. Since a large part of meaning is transferred by elements other than the spoken words selected, business negotiators abroad need much higher awareness of nonverbals and other kinds of metacommunications. This article compares some of the assumptions, expectations, and communication signals that differentiate negotiators acculturated in the United States from those acculturated in the People's Republic of China.

This paper is based on published sources, most appearing between 1989 and 1996, but the business environment in China is so fluid that all sources rapidly become dated. To mention just one change, younger and more entrepreneurial Chinese are gaining more influence than young people in China have ever had. One caveat at starting: China has 6,000 years of history, many territories, "74 dialects and 56 nationalities" (Huang, Andrulis, & Chen, 1994, P. 234), and the entire range of human personality difference. No single treatment, especially one so brief, could begin to present the full variety of Chinese cultural elements that might influence business negotiation.

Negotiation is, of course, one of the most challenging communication tasks in business. Negotiators maneuver opposed interests, wants, and expectations in a delicate balance between conflict: and cooperation: What is the least I have to give you in order to get the most from you while maintaining a favorable business relationship? In the United States, a relatively low-context culture, the words negotiators use have great importance in transmitting meaning. In high-context cultures like China, meaning comes partly from the words but heavily from factors that surround and underlie the words. So negotiation, hard even in the United States, becomes formidably difficult in China.

The Market

The many articles on Asian business that speak glowingly of the "one billion customers" in China are not exaggerating; actually 1.2 billion is closer, and the United Nations forecasts 1.5 billion by 2025 (Engholm, 1994, p. 21). Most business opportunities, however, are coastal or southern: in Mandarin-speaking Shanghai (Pudong Special Economic Zone) and Beijing; and in Cantonese-speaking Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, particularly the city of Shenzhen. Western businesspeople have eyed the huge Chinese market for centuries. Despite the excitement we read about daily in the business press, however, not many have realized high profits. To make money there, foreign businesspeople need great patience, understanding, and attention to detail.

China actively seeks foreign investment. Chinese businesspeople are known for being skilled negotiators who drive a hard bargain. Many Chinese are honing their English-language, business, and technical skills to improve their business position still further. Their efforts intensify the importance for foreigners of understanding context, culture, and metacommunication.

Negotiating in English

In the middle decades of this century, Chinese who learned a second language chose Russian, but more recently English has become the language of choice (Fisher, 1987, p. 13). The surface appearance of this as good luck for daily speakers of English may be deceptive, however, because ready use of English as the international language of trade gives rise to a dangerous complacency and cultural chauvinism. In fact, using one's own language sets in motion automatic, socialized responses to stimuli and situations, which must be recognized and controlled (Maddox, 1993, p. 20). Because a monolingual person is often culture-blind, and because China is a high-context culture, persons heading to China for business need to learn at least the rudiments of Mandarin or Cantonese, both to protect their interests and to be polite guests. …

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