Stay formal. Address their chief with his/her title. If you’re not sure, keep using “Mr” or “Ms”. Focus on the chief, in particular in the presence of his or her team. Make sure you understand the relative seniority of your counterparts. And allow time – your negotiation counterpart may need it to follow their reporting procedure.
Offer jokes and off-the-cuff humour too soon, even with a good translator. Confront your counterparts outright. (Rather voice your disagreement their way by offering something like “we will discuss this later…”). Press for answers; your counterpart may be a delegate and the answer may simply not be available. (Instead, you may ask for a time frame in which you might expect the answer.)
China is a “relationship-oriented” society. In other words “business” is often entwined with “guanxi” (networks). In this context the concept of “face” is important. The following may help you connect with your business counterparts more smoothly:
Praise your host and return their hospitality.
Initiate controversial chat topics before your host does. When China’s political and social issues are being discussed, tread carefully until you understand their views.
Impress your host with a thoughtful Australian-made gift. Thoughtfulness is more important than the price tag.
Exhibit excessive pride in our way of democracy.
Prepare some questions about Chinese “culture”. Listen to their opinions. Like all of us, Chinese are proud of their culture, history and national identity. It pays to show some genuine interest.
Compare Western and Chinese traditions and norms, or volunteer opinions about Chinese institutions and establishments.
Finally, I strongly recommend that you bring your own translator to meetings if this is feasible. Although all translators are supposed to be impartial, it’s still useful to see evidential proof of that. You need someone well-versed in commercial norms and practices who is willing to actively guard your interests and alert you about potential pitfalls.
If you need a referral, please talk to BWD and we may be able to help. If you have to rely on the other party’s translator, be alert to occasions when he or she hesitates and is evidently trying to “choose” words, and seek clarification whenever needed.
By William Wei Yue
William Wei Yue is BWD’s translator, and accredited by the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters.