2 Major Cultural Differences with China in E-commerce (Mianzi & Guanxi)

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2 Major Cultural Differences with China in E-commerce  (Mianzi & Guanxi)


I’m going to be going over some cultural quirks that you will encounter when working with Chinese suppliers and manufacturers. When most people from the Western world start working with Chinese suppliers, they don’t think about how the cultural differences between the two regions will affect business.

A lot of Westerners go into negotiations with Chinese suppliers and manufacturers not realizing that our cultural differences often put us at odds. Unfortunately, these cultural clashes can result in delays, communication mishaps, low-quality orders, and not being able to negotiate the lowest possible price that you could have. So if you are importing items from China like I know a lot of dropshippers here are doing for private labelling on Amazon FBA, then you should learn about these cultural quirks so that you can negotiate the best deals.

In particular, there are two cultural quirks that you really should know about, and I’m going to be going over those in this article. So to find out what they are and how to overcome them for yourself, keep reading.


Cultural Quirk #1
Mianzi (i.e. -Face)

In China, there is a concept called mianzi, and it roughly translates in English to reputation or face, and it is the concept of having a face. You’ve probably heard the phrase before of losing face. Well, this actually comes from the concept in China of mianzi. It’s a very complex part of their culture, and it can make or break business deals. You could be having a great relationship with a Chinese supplier, and then you clash with them over this issue, not realizing that you are, and then suddenly, your relationship can fall apart. This can be extremely confusing to Westerners doing business with China.

If you have mianzi, then it means that you have a face. It kind of means that you have a good reputation with those around you, and you have their respect and honour. The reason why it is so important in China is because unlike the West, in China, their social culture is built upon a strong hierarchal system.

The position that someone holds in this social hierarchy demands a certain amount of respect and people expect to be treated in particular ways by those that are kind of “under” them.

For example, if a subordinate disagreed with their manager, especially in a public setting, then the manager would be embarrassed and feel slighted and would lose face. But it’s not just the manager who lost face that would be humiliated here. The employee that caused the manager to lose face would likely face some form of social ostracization. Why? Because they caused someone else to lose face, and in Chinese culture, that is looked upon so negatively that the employee would be regarded as a potentially dangerous individual.

If you cause someone else to lose face, then your disregard for social norms quite likely means that you will result in other people losing face as well, so people avoid you. If you want to ensure then that you have an open line of communication between you and your supplier, you should ensure that you do not do things that would cause this and here are some tips for doing that.


Tip #1: Avoid Saying No

This is because saying no to someone would be deemed potentially quite offensive, and it would cause both parties to lose mianzi. It can be very confusing because, in the Western world, we really appreciate having direct communication when we’re dealing with business. “Yes, I can manufacture 1,000 units a month. No, I cannot manufacture 1,000 units a month.”

Well, in China, instead of coming to you and saying, “No, we cannot manufacture 1,000 units a month,” they would potentially say something along the lines of, “Maybe.” Well, when doing business in China, you need to be prepared to read between the lines. If they do not give you a direct yes and they give you something like a maybe, that almost certainly means no.


Tip #2: Do Not Get Angry

2 Major Cultural Differences with China in E-commerce  (Mianzi & Guanxi)

One of the plusses of working with Chinese suppliers is that they are ridiculously cheap for relatively good quality. One of the downsides of working with Chinese suppliers though is that there can sometimes be some frustrating delays. If you encounter a situation that you are unhappy with, avoid getting angry. Instead, try to stay as positive as you can.

In the Western world, getting angry when somebody messes you around can often result in expedited service because over here, the customer is always right. In China, it’s not quite the case. In China, if you get angry, then you risk people avoiding you.

But here’s the thing when it comes to mianzi, it goes both ways. While you can cause someone to lose face, you can also cause someone to gain face. To do this, reaffirm your respect and honour for the individual and the company that you are working with. And here are some tips to help you do this.

Complement Regularly: If you get the opportunity to compliment the individual that you are communicating with or the company that you are working with, you should take the time to do so. And another way that you can help encourage communication between you and your supplier and your contact at the factory is to complement their English. In China, many people feel a bit insecure about their English skills, and so they’re afraid to talk to Westerners. If you compliment them on their English skills, then they’ll be very happy and far more likely to respond to you.

Exaggerate a Little: In China, great means good. Good means okay and okay means not okay so if your supplier asks for your opinion on a test product that they sent you and you thought it was good, do not say that it was good. Instead, say that it was great. So keep that in mind. In China, causing someone to lose face creates distrust but helping them to gain it creates trust. And in China, trust is extremely important when doing business, which leads me to the second cultural quirk.


Cultural Quirk #2
Guanxi (i.e. relationships)

So guanxi, roughly translates in English to relationships. To understand this concept and how it differs from us, let’s first look to the West. Here in the West, we will usually pick our business partners based upon the expected ROI. So if you wanted to find a supplier to manufacture your products for you, what you would likely do is go to all of the different suppliers and get quotes and proposals and then select the best one from there that you think will make you the most money. In the West, it’s extremely normal to have a very strong business relationship with someone or a company but not to have a personal relationship with them.

In China, it’s very different. Oftentimes, a major factor if not the biggest factor why you would choose to work with someone is based upon your previous relationship with them, and this holds especially true for higher-level business. So in China, you don’t just have business meetings. You spend time outside of the business meeting getting to know each other, and this is a necessary part of the process.

So after a business meeting, you might go out for lunch. Now, you don’t talk shop during this time. Instead, you get to know them personally. Something that could take Westerners by surprise is that often, spouses are expected to come to these meetings as well since, you know, you’re getting to know the person individually, it is expected that you will get to know their family as well.

Unfortunately, the IRS does not view bringing a spouse as necessary for business so you cannot deduct their travel expenses, even though due to cultural norms, they kind of are essential. But, and this is a big but, most of dropshippers are not ordering in large enough quantities from China that going there and having an in-person meeting with the owner of the factory will be necessary.

Even so, though, understanding this concept is important and you can apply it to your situation so that you can get an advantage over your competitors. In China, priority is given to contacts that you have built guanxi with so if you go to the effort to build it or at least try to build it with your contact at the factory, then you will have a much better time negotiating deals, and here are some tips to help you do that.

  • If you get a chance, try to talk to your contact at the factory about something other than business.
  • Try to open the conversations with them with small talk.

In the West, we do this all the time though we don’t think about the fact that we are. We will often start a conversation with the phrase, “Hi. How are you?” Now, in the West, it is polite to do so, but if you skipped it, nobody would probably even notice. In China, it’s a lot more important. And don’t be taken aback if they start the conversation with some sort of question like, “Hi. Have you eaten today?” These sorts of questions are quite common ice-breakers. This is the equivalent to our, “Hi. How are you?” You are not expected to come and give some big answer about what you’ve eaten that day. Instead, you should just answer with yes.

  • Avoid negative language so that you do not cause them to lose face

And finally, something else to keep in mind is that while it’s important to try to respect the cultural differences when you can, you’re obviously not going to be perfect at it, and that is okay. Chinese factories do understand that we have different cultures.

So if you cause someone to lose mianzi, it’s not good, but it’s not as big of a deal as if somebody who was rooted in the culture did so. But if you go to the effort to respect these cultural differences, then it will be very much appreciated and very much help your communication with your supplier or manufacturer. And when you build guanxi with your supplier, it will help you get the best deals.

Thanks for reading this article. If you liked it, I’d appreciate it if you share it with your entrepreneur friends. And if you would like to start your own online business today, check this article.

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