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The primary purpose of meetings in China is to figure out how things are going or to announce new things. Forming opinions and coming to decisions on the other hand take place in many private get-togethers outside of the conference room. Meetings in China are made up of mostly accompanying communication.
Appointments in China are kept very punctually. Inform people if you are late.
Frequently, many people are invited to a meeting who have nothing to do with the topic or are only marginally concerned to stress the importance of a project or to show special appreciation to you as a foreign guest. Many means a lot, is the motto.
Running the meeting
The person of highest rank will open the meeting with a welcoming speech, and will also end it. But it is not rare for him to withdraw during the meeting and leave the room. He hands running and moderation of the meeting over to a representative.
In many places it is expected that the highest-ranking guest will also say some words of greeting and honors the meeting at the end with a short speech of thanks.
Who does the talking?
Apart from that only subject matter experts should speak in a meeting. In China it is important that always persons of comparable levels in the hierarchy talk to each other. As a director or a high-ranking manager you will lose respect if you communicate with Chinese on a lower level.
The moderator decides which expert speaks when. It is not common to speak up on your own initiative
A precisely worked out agenda is not the rule for meetings in China, but you can suggest certain topics. However, topics on the agenda are not dealt with in sequence; there is jumping from one individual point to another, back and forth. The Chinese are happy to change for the moment to an uncomplicated agenda item and come back to the controversial item later, especially when it is hard to resolve. Harmony between conversation partners must not be endangered and over-critical utterances can quickly lead to loss of face.
It is not recommended that you spontaneously present completely new topics at a meeting. If the Chinese side was not able to come to agreement on your position in advance, it will have nothing to say on it.
Cautious expression of opinion
In China, forming opinions and making decisions are a continuing process, developing slowly through many private get-togethers. Changes of direction are likely. As a consequence, individual experts mostly express their personal opinions in a very cautious and general way in a meeting. What is believed to be correct today may be false tomorrow.
In meetings with Chinese an indirect style of communication is predominant. Take particular note of carefully formulated hints and read between the lines. Do not expect plain talk but listen closely and put together the individual pieces bit by bit. Be especially aware of what is said at the end of an explanation or a lecture. The most important part always comes at the end in China.
Yes is not yet a commitment
You may interpret frequent nodding of the head and words like “Yes, yes, no problem” quite naturally as agreement. However, your Chinese conversation partners often just want to indicate that they are listening to you. A “yes” is not yet linked to a commitment that something is possible or that it will be carried out. The only “yes” in the sense of a commitment consists in a “yes” plus a repetition of the statements they are in agreement with.
No clear “no”
The Chinese always avoid offending someone with a negative statement. Consequently, you will rarely hear a clear “no” from your Chinese business partners to a suggestion you have made; instead there will be evasive arguments or counter questions that lead away from the topic.
Chinese people are capable of recognizing those fine nuances in communication immediately.
Pay attention to the context in which something is said, as well as body language and signals such as silence, hesitation, or distracting tactics.
Undivided attention from the participants in a meeting is not necessarily a must in China. For example, it is common for people to leave the room several times to make telephone calls or to swap totally unrelated information with the person sitting next to them. Even a short snooze is allowed at meetings with a large number of participants.
However, do not mistake the coming and going, occasional dozing off, and unrelated activities for your Chinese business partners not taking the meeting seriously.
Detailed minutes of meeting
As a rule, very detailed minutes of meetings are taken that form the basis for further processes of reconciliation and decision-making outside of the meeting. Write up minutes yourself so that you will be prepared to handle things correctly if at a later point of time your Chinese business partners come back to statements and topics mentioned only marginally in the meeting.
Katrin Koll Prakoonwit