You’re negotiating one of your first deals in China. You’ve made contact with the counter-party you think is right for you and made your proposal. Now you are waiting on his response.
What are the options?
• "Yes" sounds like good news, but is often bad news.
• "Maybe" may be good and it may be bad.
"No" is good because a Chinese counter-party who is able to give a direct, unambiguous answer might be just the type of partner you are looking for. There’s a good chance that this guy is A) so busy with legitimate business that it isn’t cost-effective for him to dance you to death with an endless series of "relationship-building" meetings, or B) he has actual experience with Westerners and knows not to mess around with vague "high context" riddles. In China, a flat-out "no" is unusual and signals either that your offer was completely off-base, or that your counter-party might be just the kind of straight-shooting, multi-cultural professional that you need.
"Yes" is bad if you think that the deal is decided and that a binding, final agreement is at hand. It is rare for a Chinese deal of any consequence to be settled in one go – unless you have blundered terribly on price or terms. A Chinese "yes" isn’t necessarily bad, as long as Westerners understand that it is just one step in a long, twisting road to a relationship. Only amateurs think that yes here means the same as yes there.
"Maybe" may be good, and it may be bad. It depends on who utters the next sentence. If a Chinese counter-party says "maybe" and then shuts up, you could have a problem. If the Chinese party says "maybe" and then counter-proposes, qualifies or suggests, then your job is to shut up and listen. The rest of the conversation should be about what comes AFTER the maybe.
Americans see the "maybe" as a signal to review what has already been said – usually LOUDER and SLOWER than the first time. The Chinese "maybe" is really a signal to move on to other proposals and solutions – and sometimes it means to wait until a later time. A Chinese "maybe" can mean "no thank you," "not now," "this is above my pay grade," or "let’s try a different approach." If you are doing business in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen or another international business center in China, then it’s perfectly OK to politely ask for more details or explanations.
China rule-of-thumb: If your counter-party is offended or befuddled by simple requests for information, then you are not doing business with the right guy. Keep looking. There are plenty of other potential counter-parties here.
Andrew Hupert is an adjunct professor at New York University in Shanghai and publisher of ChinaSolved and ChineseNegotiation.com.
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