Meetings and Discussions

It goes without saying that you should make certain you have someone taking notes during meetings. But having said that, it’s a good idea try to make sure you have the same notes as your counterparts. This is just good practice for any business meeting, but is even more important when language and cultural issues must be considered.

If you are American, you may be frustrated at the Chinese way of handling consensus. Try to be patient. Be prepared to discuss everything, at least two or three times and in more detail than might otherwise be thought necessary or expedient. Chinese like to talk, to discuss, and in many cases, the discussion is carried on at great length. Conversation is still an art in China. This may not be intended to be frustrating but it certainly can be, especially to an American who generally prefers the abridged version.

If you are Chinese, you may be irritated by the speed and dynamic of American methods and frustrated by the American perspective on how things should be done. You may also find American decision-making methods quite abrupt. Americans ask direct questions and will challenge the answers; are practical and pragmatic, direct and to the point.

Sometimes this is perceived as confrontational when in fact, it is normal and part of what is learned during the socialization process. Americans are taught to think independently and critically, to ask questions, form opinions, take a position on issues and be able to defend or at least explain the chosen viewpoint. Americans expect to be challenged on ideas. It’s part of American culture. A challenge is not usually taken personally.

But this approach is considered far too abrupt by many Chinese and directly challenging an idea may be perceived as a personal affront or even an insult. Where an American might get directly to the point out of respect and consideration for not wasting the other person’s time, a Chinese would likely consider this approach too forceful. They might believe the person had no manners, was very rude, was trying to force ideas on others, and had poor social skills. A Chinese is more likely to allude to a problem in a round-about way, giving the other person a chance to restate their point of view and save face.

Many times, Chinese people will discuss a matter in great detail and may raise several unrelated issues before coming to a consensus on whether or not they are actually looking at an elephant. Where an American would also look at it, walk around it, and examine it from all sides, the process of arriving at a judgment that, yes, indeed, it is an elephant, would be completed rather quickly, independently and usually without too much discussion.

“Hey, Bill. Did you see that?”
“Sure did, Jim”
“It looks like an elephant to me. What’s it look like to you, Bill?”
“Looks like an elephant to me too, Jim.”

At least, between two Americans from the US midwest, that would be about the extent of the conversation. But the conversation would be a bit different between two Chinese.

“Hey, Zhou. Did you see that?”
“See what, Li?”
“It’s over there by the wall. Go look for yourself.
“Wow Zhou, it’s really big!” Do you think Lu would know what it is?”
“He might. We should call him and ask.”
“Okay. Did you bring your phone?”
“Yes, I just got a new one. Half price for this week only. You should get one for yourself. They’re not so expensive anymore.(pause, dial number) Well Zhou, it seems Lu is not home right now. Since he can’t tell us, what do you think it might be?”
“It looks like an elephant to me, Li. But I can’t be quite sure.”
“I agree with you Zhou. It is possible that it’s an elephant, but I think we should discuss this with Lu and then we can decide. After all, he is an expert.”