The Rice Field Analogy: Negotiation Tactics Across Cultures

Cultures have codes.

The past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to tap into these codes by using analogies constructively.

So can they be used to tap into negotiating with other cultures.

Innate Analogous Terms in Negotiation

Negotiation is a game.

In each culture, this game has different rules.

Strategy in negotiation requires understanding the game you’re playing.

Language used in negotiation is, of itself, analogous.

Negotiation is sometimes likened to going to war. Rules are minimal. Often, sports jargon is used, such as “fair play,” which is:

“in sport, the fact of playing according to the rules and not having an unfair advantage.”

Negotiations are something to be “won.”

These analogous terms used in negotiations naturally extend to cultures.

Framing a foreign culture’s negotiation tactics in the form of an analogy will help drive the correct strategy to “win.”

Cultural Analogies in Negotiation

In negotiation, Russians are “playing poker”; Germans are “playing chess.”

These are pretty straight forward analogies, easily understood by Westerners.

But what about the Chinese?

Chinese negotiations can be an enigma to foreigners.

You might feel mutual confidence, trust, and cooperation one day and, the very next, feel tricked into accepting something you hadn’t discussed.

The “pattern” is not like poker; it’s not like chess.

It’s variable and inconsistent.

To understand this seemingly random give-and-take, a friend provided me a succinct analogy: Chinese negotiations are like working in a rice field.

Rice is, without a doubt, an important part of Chinese culture.

It provides the people sustenance every single day from childhood to old age.

Cultivating this crop necessitates much more cooperation within a village than do crops in Europe or the U.S.

The rice field terraces in the countryside are flooded with a common irrigation system. The water irrigates one field to the next, and this requires that the entire village collectively working together.

Focusing on your land, alone, won’t work.

Instead, you must both hold your own and cooperate with others in equal parts.

This is what negotiating in China requires.

blog rice2

View it as working together on these rice terraces: you must hold your own while using the same irrigation system as that which feeds your business partner’s field. And your business partner is doing the same.

In order to be successful, you must support and cooperate with your business partner while playing defensively and cleverly, seeking your own advantage and ensuring that your partner doesn’t exploit his.

When negotiating with Chinese partners, you aren’t playing poker, neither are you playing chess.

You’re working in a rice field together, both supporting and competing.

Insightful Cross-Cultural Analogies: How Hofstede’s Power Distance & Uncertainty Avoidance Aid Understanding

Power distance. Uncertainty avoidance.

We’ve discussed these two dimensions at length in previous posts.

Not only are they stand-alone aspects that aid cross-cultural understanding, but social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, has applied these two dimensions to create cultural analogies that help simplify foreign workplace environments.

Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance Review

These two dimensions relate to workplace behaviors.

Power distance is the degree to which cultures accept and expect the unequal distribution of power amongst members of organizations and institutions.

For instance, those employees in cultures of high power distance will not directly confront a superior; those employees and superiors in cultures of low power distance rely on communication and the consultation of each other, which de-emphasizes the hierarchical nature of status.

Uncertainty avoidance is the measure of acceptance and expectation for unpredictability and chaos in society.

Those cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance have a low tolerance for unpredictability and ambiguity, resulting in rule-oriented, law-abiding societies.

Those cultures with low levels of uncertainty avoidance have a high tolerance for the same, resulting in societies willing to take more risks, tolerate a wider variety of opinions, and not follow rules so strictly.

The Analogies

Arranging these two dimensions on the axes of a matrix, Hofstede produced a set of helpful analogies to better understand the work cultures of the United Kingdom, China, Germany, and France.

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With its low uncertainty avoidance and low power distance, a typical English company is like a village market, in that it combines risk-taking with flat hierarchies, resulting in the classic entrepreneurial spirit.

Germany also shares the flat workplace hierarchies (low power distance) with the British; however, German culture has a high uncertainty avoidance, making typical German companies efficient and inflexible, more like a “well-oiled machine” or a clock. Rules are strictly followed, with decentralized decision-making and each equally important wheel working together.

The typical French company is described as a “royal court” or “pyramid of people.” The culture is one of high power distance, where everyone knows their place and decision-making is centralized. They also share high uncertainty avoidance with the Germans, meaning rules are strictly followed, resulting in a complex network of relationships across the levels of hierarchy. Power and authority are highly valued.

The best analogy for a Chinese company is that of a family with a head patriarch. Like France, China values high power distance and, like England, low uncertainty avoidance. This means that, despite having a typical hierarchical society that values company loyalty, risks and rule-bending are embraced, which has helped to position China as an economic superpower.

Although I can’t stress enough that analogies are never perfect and nothing is one-size-fits-all, they do allow managers to form mental models, aiding understanding in the workplace environments of foreign countries.

How Culture Impacts a Person’s Sense of Control (aka Locus of Control)

Do you believe in fate?

Last week, we talked about how the degree to which someone feels life is directed by destiny dictates their locus of control – that is their feeling of control over their own lives.

Let’s look at how the locus of control unfolds in the workplace.

The Blame Game

When a goal is set and not reached in a workplace environment, the reactions of your colleagues can be very telling.

Sheila blames Jeremy for not delivering the documents in time for her to complete her task.

Jeremy blames Tom for not communicating promptly.

Tom blames his home life for distracting him.

Team Leader Lisa admits she missed the mark and should have taken the campaign in another direction. She apologizes for the part she played in not meeting the goal.

People with an internal locus of control take personal responsibility for their role in a group’s failure, while those with an external locus point at everyone else but themselves, whether they see fault in the “weakest links” of the group or in external factors.

Cross-Cultural Factors

How do cross-cultural factors come into play in the locus?

The locus of control is directly related to personality orientation; however, social psychologists have begun to study the majority locus of control in various cultures and the factors that influence it.

They’ve discovered that quite often the people of any given culture look at fate or self-control in a generally collective manner.

As you may have guessed, individualist cultures generally demonstrate an internal locus of control. They believe they’re the masters of their own fate.

Collectivist cultures – like those of China or Japan – demonstrate an external locus. They accept that things are out of their hands and don’t put weight on the individual’s role in the whole.

To illustrate this, when Americans and Chinese were surveyed about their view of fate, these were the results.

locusofcontrol

89% of questioned Americans agreed with the statement, “What happens to me is my own doing,” while 65% of Chinese admitted, “Sometimes I feel I don’t have control over the direction my life is taking.”

This aligns with each culture’s dominant traits, with Americans espousing ambition, individualism, and the “American dream,” while China espouses harmony and collectivism.

Next week, we’ll talk a little bit about how the group locus of control can be divided up further amongst ethnic groups and even simply locations in the same country. We’ll also talk about primary and secondary control. Stay tuned.

Contracts in China: How Relationship-Based Cultures View Contractual Obligations

When you do business in China, you may come across a common contractual clause.

This clause stipulates that if issues arise, the contracted parties will discuss them and the contract may potentially be redrafted.

China is a relationship-based culture.

Someone from a rule-based culture, like most Western societies, will likely take issue with this clause.

Contracts are supposed to be black-and-white. They are supposed to be unambiguous. They are supposed to regulate specifically every aspect of the business relationship.

Contracts exist to effectively end the negotiation stage and begin working together.

The clause makes it clear that the contractual agreement may be renegotiated at any time. That means, for instance, when the parties do face a dispute, it might not go to court in the city in which the contract stipulates, but rather in a city court where the established law may work in the other party’s favor.

So, why even negotiate a contract in China? If it’s so ambiguous, what does the contract stand for?

Relationship-based Values vs. Rule-based Values

The relationship-based culture of China values a mutually beneficial and respectful business relationship. The contract is symbolic as such.

The contract signifies that personal relationships exist amongst the parties, therefore future disagreements may be negotiated.

While in Western cultures, a signed contract might mark the end of the negotiation process, in China – and in other relationship-based cultures – it marks the beginning.

You might think you’ve nailed down prices, but even those can be renegotiated days or weeks after signing.

Although those from Western cultures might see such a contract as pointless, its signing is still very important in relationship-based cultures.

In fact, it’s so important, that a contract signed with a Chinese company traditionally involves a luncheon or ceremony when making it official.

As soon as a contract is signed, it signifies that the two parties – especially the leaders – are publicly friends and will be respectful of their business relationship.

Relationships-to-Home Life

Relationship-based societies also view work life and personal life as inseparable to the point that “personal relations” and “business relations” are concepts that don’t exist in these societies.

That’s because company rules are dominated by relationships, particularly if an employee’s in-group is their family or tribe.

This means that if you have a conflict with an employee, it can often extend to a conflict with his/her family, kin, or any other member of his/her in-group.

Next week, we’ll discuss how this situation might manifest, along with other conflicts that crop up in business in relationship-based cultures.

China and the Marriage Buyer’s Market

You might think there are universal norms regarding love and marriage, but that is certainly not the case.

Last week, we discussed Japan and the norm of marrying for economic advantage over love. In neighboring China, this idea is also ingrained.

And parents considering marriage prospects take the matter so seriously that, in Shanghai, Beijing, and other Chinese cities, “Marriage Buyer’s Markets” exist.

People’s Park Marriage Market

In the Marriage Buyer’s Market in Shanghai’s People’s Park, a summary outline of daughters and sons, alike, are presented by their parents on cardboard signs.

Similar to a job fair, other parents in search of proper partners for their children are invited to walk around, perusing the signs, which enumerate the pros of marrying the daughter/son in question and attempting to matchmake the best prospects.

Some selling points you might see on signs:

  • Born in the year of the dog/171cm/12.000 Yuan salary
  • Own apartment/76sqm/188cm

Chinese marriages are still dowry-based, like in India; but unlike India, the dowry is paid not by the bride’s parents, but by the groom’s, and is termed “bride prices.”

As detailed in The Economist:

“Most of China is patrilocal: in theory, at least, a married woman moves into her husband’s home and looks after his parents…The groom’s parents…are expected to pay for the wedding and give money and property to the couple. These bride prices have shot up, bending the country’s society and economy out of shape.”

This makes shopping for the right partner all the more difficult. If the groom’s family is unable to afford the bride prices, then he is not considered a good match. Moreover, with the male-to-female ratio being 105:100 according to a 2017 census, the gender imbalance in China makes the chances of finding a mate even slimmer.

The bride may also have difficulty. In fact, those women of high income and education who haven’t married before the age of 30 are christened with the derogatory term, “leftover women.”

What this all boils down to is that love is not the currency for successful marriages in China; horoscope, property, and income are.

As one Chinese mother summed up the culture’s values and norms regarding marriage:

“First you build your life, and only then also your love.”

Love Happiness vs. Team Happiness

In this way, the West’s focus on love equating a happy life differs from the Chinese focus on economic teamwork equating the same.

The perfect Chinese mate is someone to help you stay afloat financially, raise a family, and succeed mutually in the balancing act of life…and, perhaps most importantly, not be considered “leftover.”

And searching out this perfect mate is not a private concern; it’s a familial affair.

As Wlada Kolosowa, a journalist for the German magazine, Spiegel, sums up:

“In the Western world, love is a matter between two individuals; in China, it is a union between two families.”

Next week, we’ll talk about two-generation families versus extended-generation families. Stay tuned.