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Luxury Insider: Understanding the Mind of Chinese Buyers

If you were a freelance writer and you were turned down by a publisher on an article, how would you like to receive this kind of response:

“We have read your manuscript with bondless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and beg you a thousand times, to overlook our short sight and timidity.”

No means No, regardless how you spell it, but phrasing it that way is not quite the same blow to your self-esteem. While it is not likely you will ever receive this kind of reply (if you even get a reply…), it would not necessarily be uncommon if you were in China. Different people, different ways.

The above text was presented to me and 30 or so other real estate specialists attending the Luxury Portfolio Conference in Shanghai in July. It sets the tone for a captivating demonstration of how challenging cross-cultural communication can be, by an expert on the subject: Jeffrey Dong, a Chinese -born intercultural training consultant who spent years in the West.

The main take-away from the presentation is, of course, to not be misled by pre-judgments, stereotypes or generalizations when dealing with clients of a different culture. Ultimately, success, as a Realtor, is not based on how good we are at imposing our best style recipe to all clients, regardless of their cultural peculiarities, but to try to understand where they come from and adapt to them.

This is particularly critical when working with Chinese buyers. So, let’s try to study the “Chinese Mind”.

First, here is the list of the most common stereotypes associated with Chinese buyers in the West:

  • They “always” demand rebates, whether in the form of price, or commissions, or both
  • They take legal contracts lightly, occasionally “cancelling” a deal unilaterally
  • They like to work with the listing agent, even if they have another agency relationship
  • They have a tendency to work with several agents at the same time

You know what? If indeed there is some truth about some of the above traits, we are responsible for the misunderstanding. Why? Because we are often guilty of treating all clients as if they all had the same brain cells and heart beats as we. They don’t. They cannot understand our ways, our traditions, our standards of practice, our rules, our laws… Unless we take the time to explain them, and at the right time, that is as a preliminary discussion, before driving to the first home.

The Chinese, from what I observed over the years and learned from Jeffrey Dong’s presentation, are very complex people. The Chinese mind has been molded over some 5,000 years of unbroken civilization and influenced by several philosophies, dogmas and social systems. Sometimes those work in harmony; sometimes they are conflicting. The three main doctrines can be grossly defined as follows:

  • Confucianism: Order is a key word here. Strict adherence to a hierarchical system. Knowledge is power. Education is the path to knowledge. Among other things, it teaches respect, modesty and humility. Family/Community/Country represent the foundation of life.
  • Daoism: Follows the way of nature. More room here for individualism, spontaneity, personal thoughts and feelings. Be yourself, as we would say in the West.
  • Buddhism: Don’t worry about people’ imperfections and life being sometimes painful. Conserve your ethics, mindfulness & wisdom through meditation and enlightenment.

The mix of these teachings (particularly Confucianism), explain the Chinese’ values, beliefs and attitudes. It explains their patterns of thinking and communicating. As an example, Realtors often complain that the Chinese do not give straight answers. Maybe they don’t, and it is often out of politeness & respect. “Yes” is not commonly used and has many meanings; “No” very rarely expressed. Nothing is black or white. The truth is in the middle, it is grey in a world of ambiguity.

Although it may be a bit too simplistic, it is tempting to compare the key dimensions of culture between “American characteristics” and those most Chinese people share:

  • Individualism vs. Collectivism
  • Need for certainty vs. Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Short term attention/goals vs. Long term
  • Task vs. Relationship
  • Informality vs. Formality

If you are in real estate and you have the ambition of becoming a star, chances are you will work more and more with Chinese buyers, just because there are more & more of them and they buy more & more of what you list & sell. Accordingly, you will have to adjust your ways to that of the clients whose trust you need to succeed.

Understand that, even though you feel most comfortable being straight, direct, impatient and sometimes argumentative and even confrontational… You will need to adapt your style for those clients who are more indirect, elusive and require both more understanding and a longer warm-up time. My advice? Read Confucius.

Alain Pinel

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