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Yes Means No (or Yes or Maybe), How to Read Between the Lines Negotiating in China

In China, the concept of saving face proves essential to the harmony and peace-keeping which is of the utmost importance in their culture. In business, saving face can be saying yes when you mean no. By learning how and why this happens, you can better understand your Chinese colleagues and be attuned to what’s really going on in your negotiations.


China is considered a high-context culture, whereas Western countries are considered low-context cultures. Western countries, or low-context cultures, usually propose ideas through thoughtfully constructed verbal or written information. Essentially, what is said is taken at face value. Whereas in Chinese culture, or a high-context culture, what is said is not nearly as important as body language, tone and collective feeling. This basic foundation can change almost everything about communication. How these two cultures interact is fundamentally different because the focus is finely attuned to different things. One colleague will be focusing on what is said and the other on how it is said.


Saving face is a byproduct of a high-context culture where keeping the peace is revered. Saying no is considered a negative energetic exchange. For this reason, you will barely hear the word no spoken in a business meeting. Instead, you must be able to feel a no. To do this, other contexts matter and you should pay attention to these four things.

  1. Body language. This is the biggest indicator of your Chinese business colleagues' true feelings. Notice if they are moving away from you, not making eye contact, or shrugging– these are your first clues. Tune into the body language for a more accurate interpretation of their true feelings.

  2. Tone. Yes is a neutral or automatic answer. How that yes is said, however, will not be neutral. The tone it is given in is indicative of the true answer. If the tone is strained or forced, take this as one of your high-context signs.

  3. The whole response. It is likely that you will hear, “Yes” and then later in the same breath, “but.” Don’t attach yourself to the initial yes but pay more attention to everything being expressed. What is said after the initial yes will reveal more information.

  4. Who is in the room. Understand that hierarchy is very important in Chinese culture and not everyone’s yes has the same weight. Understanding and defining who you need a yes from will make things easier for you in the long run. People down the ladder might say yes to things that are not their decision to make. Don’t take that yes as evidence to move forward with your plans.


Understanding these four basics of navigating a high-context culture will give you a much better impression of what is going on in your business negotiations. Additionally, learning how to phrase and structure your proposals, questions and inquiries can also make a big difference.


Here are some basic ideas for how you can conduct yourself in business meetings in China to get the most out of your time.


  1. Pay attention to your body language and tone. You might have prepared a thorough and clear presentation, but if you are not participating in creating a harmonious and warm atmosphere with your body language and tone– then your proposals are not going to go very far.

  2. Ask open questions. It’s best not to put your Chinese colleges in a position where they have to give you a direct yes or no answer. They may say yes when they mean no. Instead, ask general questions that would allow them to answer more freely, such as, “What are your thoughts?”

  3. Don’t say no. Respect the cultural importance of saving face and keeping the peace by not giving curt “No’s” to questions, proposals or inquiries. Instead, mirror their speech patterns of “Yes, but.”


If you are able to expand your awareness in a high-context culture, you will find reading between the lines and negotiating to be a much easier process. Tuning in will not be easy, but it is a skill that can be learned with practice. If you are able to adapt and integrate these few tips you will see a great improvement when negotiating with your Chinese colleagues, allowing you better relationships and faster deals.


Cultural understanding can be difficult and requires time and effort, feel free to speak to our team today to find out how we can help your brand for a better cultural understanding and negotiating in China.

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