Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Negotiation: China and the Gold Rush Mentality

The importance of communication in business with international clients hinges on both effective negotiations and a cultural understanding of your counterpart

By — on / International Negotiation


If Chinese culture favors insiders, it stands to reason that outsiders face an uphill battle, especially in negotiation.

In One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China (Free Press, 2005), business executive and Wall Street Journal bureau chief James McGregor writes of the 1996 attempt by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, to declare that only it had the right to publish financial data in China, thereby locking out Dow Jones and Reuters. It was a bold move based on brute power. Xinhua backed down only after Dow Jones and Reuters appealed to the U.S. government, which threatened to abandon a trade agreement with China.

Overcoming cultural barriers in negotiations is never easy, but in the case of China’s booming economy, negotiators may be tempted to rush headlong into negotiated agreements or negotiating scenarios that may prove difficult.

The gold rush mentality in China infects locals and foreigners alike. An American executive recently told me about his efforts to sell an insurance product to a Chinese company. He learned that the company was meeting simultaneously with another American firm that was eager to enter the Chinese market. The competitor won the deal, but with little room to make a profit.

Some might argue that you need to take chances and even accept temporary losses to gain a foothold in today’s China. Before you do, consider this advice from Carl J. Lukach, previously the director of finance for DuPont in the Asia Pacific: “Don’t do anything in China that you wouldn’t do in New Jersey.” As you adapt to culture and context, remember that the numbers must still add up for a deal to be worthwhile.

What tips do you have for overcoming a cultural barrier? Leave a comment.

Related International Negotiations Article:  Examples of Negotiation in Real Life: Culture at the Negotiation Table in International Negotiations – What is the role of negotiation in international business agreements? Creating understanding and agreements between counterparts of different cultural backgrounds have their own challenges, unique from those bargaining scenarios involving counterparts of similar cultural backgrounds.

Adapted from, “Negotiating in China,” for the Negotiation newsletter by Ray Friedman February 2007.

Originally published in June 2013.

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