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Navigating Negotiation Nuances in Taiwan

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A dance of diplomacy  

As you immerse yourself further into Taiwan’s culture, you’ll quickly discover that negotiation here often extends beyond mere transactions to become a dance of diplomacy and indirect communication; the mystery of Taiwan’s high context communications culture in which much is expressed implicitly. The Taiwanese approach to negotiation typically emphasizes harmony and avoids direct confrontation, which can sometimes puzzle expats accustomed to more straightforward styles. For instance, when discussing terms of a contract, it is common for Taiwanese businesspeople to express agreement or pleasure not with an overt affirmation, but through subtle nods and maintaining a pleasant facial expression.

Stepping off the plane in Taipei, the vibrant hustle and bustle of the city immediately envelops you. Amid the neon-lit streets of Ximending and the ancient, whispering walls of Tamsui, negotiation isn’t just a business skill. It’s an integral part of everyday life. Whether you’re haggling over prices in the bustling Jianguo Jade Market or negotiating your lease terms with a local landlord, understanding Taiwan’s unique negotiation landscape is crucial. Here in Taiwan, where the exchange of ideas is as delicate as the brush strokes in traditional Chinese calligraphy, mastering the art of negotiation can help you bridge cultural gaps and foster deeper connections. As expats, adapting to the local styles of negotiation, rooted in a rich tapestry of cultural nuances and business etiquettes can transform your interactions and enhance your experience in this dynamic island nation.

Negotiating nuances a cultural ritual 

In Taiwan’s not so recent past, one would negotiate on relatively small purchases even from street vendors. The expat might be chided for not demanding a discount for a large print order at a copy shop, or when buying two bags of tea. With the advent of bù èr jià 不二價 (no second price=fixed pricing) your attempts for a discount might fall on deaf ears for small purchases. Negotiation, then and now is not only about getting the best price but also about enjoyment and interaction. The vendors expect you to negotiate and appreciate it when you engage with them using basic Mandarin phrases. This practice is not just about saving a few NT dollars; it’s about participating in a cultural ritual that respects the seller’s initial asking price as a starting point for a friendly negotiation. Frequently, the result might not be a reduction in price, but an increase in the quantity or some extra items thrown in.

Cross-cultural negotiation styles

Furthermore, professional settings in Taiwan also reflect this unique blend of formality and personal connection. Building trust and respect through small talk about family, hobbies, and personal interests is often a precursor to any serious business discussion. This relational approach can sometimes mean slower negotiation processes, but the results are often more sustainable and rewarding relationships.
I moved to Taiwan over 40 years ago, and in the past 25 I have been researching cross-cultural negotiation styles. The research suggests that styles of negotiation are expressed along two major bandwidths:

Your Strategic Intent in Negotiation:

Strategic intent is the core of your approach to negotiations, defining how you intend to achieve your objectives and what methods you are willing to employ. It ranges from competitive tactics that seek to maximize your capture of value at the expense of the counterparty, to collaborative strategies focused on creating mutually beneficial solutions. Understanding and defining your strategic intent is crucial as it guides your behavior and decisions throughout the negotiation process, directly influencing the outcome.

Your Preferred Basis for Agreement:

Reflects the foundation on which you prefer to build your negotiation agreements. Some negotiators, like in Taiwan, emphasize the importance of establishing a strong, trusting relationship with the counterparty, believing that this facilitates more open dialogue and conflict resolution. Others, like an American lawyer, however, focus on creating detailed, legally binding agreements, prioritizing clarity and legal certainty over interpersonal dynamics. Identifying your preferred base is vital to developing strategies that are aligned with your values and goals, and to anticipating potential areas of friction with counterparts who have different approaches.

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The chart to the left shows the average style of negotiation declared by a large sample of young Taiwanese. It suggests a preference for achieving a fair, collaborative, mutually beneficial agreement based first on the strength of the relationship.

What is your style of negotiation?

Interested readers are welcome to link to the URL below to take an assessment and receive a free report.

For expats, mastering nuances is key to thriving in Taiwan. It requires patience, a willingness to learn from each encounter, and an understanding that in Taiwan, negotiation is as much about building lasting relationships as it is about sealing a deal. Whether you are negotiating a business deal, setting up services at your new home, or even navigating local customs, understanding and embracing the local style of negotiation can lead to more meaningful and successful interactions.

Chris Bates is a retired Partner at Heidrick & Struggles and the author of Culture Shock! Taiwan and the near-future thriller about Chinese and American relations Rise of the Water Margin. He can be reached at interfas.negotiation@gmail.com

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