Understanding Chinese Business Etiquette
“In Chinese business culture, humility is a virtue” is a famous quote by Stephan H. Verstappen. The quote depicts how the art of Chinese business etiquette is to build closely-knit personal relationships with business contacts.
The moral excellence of being humble and polite shapes business etiquette in the Chinese culture. Chinese business etiquette relies on relationships to provide social comfort and a peaceful working environment. This blog post will give you everything you need to know when it comes to creating a successful business encounter.
In the Chinese business culture, spending quality time with business contacts to make them feel comfortable is a common approach to doing business.
10 Quick Chinese Facts:
- China’s official name is the Republic of China (PRC)
- The official language is Standard Chinese, with various other recognised languages
- The capital is Beijing; with the largest city being Shanghai
- China has the largest population in the world (1.35 billion people)
- In China, if you have parents that are over 60 years old, it’s illegal to not visit them regularly
- Chinese New Year falls on new moon between January 21 and February 20 – differing from year to year. The celebration lasts for 15 days
- Fortune cookies are not a traditional Chinese custom! They were invented in San Francisco
- The national day is 1st October
- All of China uses the same time zone despite the country’s size
- The national animal is the Giant Panda
Chinese Business Etiquette:
#1. Chinese Business Etiquette – Setting the first impression:
This is one of the most significant types of etiquette as it creates a good first impression for many. To persuade your business contacts that you have potential, you must look presentable. Wearing high quality clothing helps indicate both status and modesty. In Chinese business etiquette, dressing in formal dark colors is considered professional compared to bright colored clothing.
Being punctual to meetings is greatly valued in Chinese culture as it reflects how well organized you are in your daily life. As with most countries being late can start a relationship off on the wrong foot.
While Chinese professionals might not comment on your tardiness it will shape their perspective of you in the future. Similarly, you also shouldn’t berate them for being late as this will result in them losing “face.”
c. Handshake and Business Cards
In addition, at the start of a meeting, greeting each other with a handshake is a polite gesture to ease into further discussion. Handshakes in China are not as firm as in the West – short and soft is the norm and keep eye contact brief. Too much eye contact can be interpreted as a challenge/aggression.
Following a handshake, it is crucial to exchange business cards with your contacts. Business cards should include your professional title, if your business has a prestigious distinction include it on the card. They should have an English and Chinese side, always present the Chinese side facing upwards.
While handing and receiving business cards, it is considered respectful to use both hands. One hand placed on each corner of the business card is the most common way to both give and receive business cards in China.
A business card is regarded as an extension of the person, so treat the business card carefully – studying it briefly before placing it into a business card holder, never straight into a wallet or pocket!
#2. Chinese Business Etiquette – Chatting:
a. Small talk
Chinese business professionals highly appreciate attempts to communicate in their language. Little things like saying some Chinese words such as “你好“ or “您好” (meaning “Hello”) while greeting them, can help to start a relationship on the right foot. Check out this video on some common phrases:
Small talk is required to gain initial attention by getting your business contacts engaged in your conversation. Small talk topics that are acceptable to talk about are: the weather, travelling in China, art, culture and food. Always talk about positive impressions of China!
These topics not only magnify the positive impressions of Chinese culture but also emphasize how much you appreciate it. Even if your conversation partner is not particularly interested in these topics they will certainly appreciate your efforts to understand their home and culture.
Topics that should be off limits: political discussions – particularly those related to Taiwan and Tibet. Human rights should not be discussed during the meal.
It is important to remember that a blunt “no” should not be used as it is considered rude, it should instead be replaced by the inoffensive “maybe” or “we`ll think about it”.
Moreover, in the Chinese business culture, it is more respectful to say an individual’s position before their name, for example, “Professor Zhang”. Even in close relationships, it is still common to use a person’s title before their name in professional settings.
Moreover, tone becomes progressively more important as the conversation continues. Keeping your tone neutral by not letting your emotions escalate is important in sustaining your contacts’ attention. Chinese are very guarded with their emotions in professional settings.
Getting angry, upset, or showing any extreme type of emotion is one of the many ways you can lose “face” in the eyes of others. This can make Chinese professionals hard to read, often making negotiation and planning difficult. However, the best method for combating this is to replicate their methods and similarly take a guarded approach toward showing emotion.
#3. Chinese Business Etiquette – Meetings and Decision-Making:
When coming to a meeting, you must be well prepared! Make sure you have enough printed proposals to distribute to the whole room – if not more! Be aware that the Chinese prefer a black and white colour scheme, avoiding colors.
Never write or type in red ink. Red ink is a symbol of protest or criticism, it is used to mark the names of criminals condemned to death in official records!
Not all Chinese follow the same decision-making rules as the west. They tend to extend negotiations beyond the agreed deadline in order to gain some advantage. Keep this in mind and no not mention deadlines.
It must also be noted that many Chinese workers take a break between 12- 2pm so be wary of that when scheduling meetings and such.
Chinese Business Culture – Dining and Business Deals:
Chinese business officials show hospitality through the gesture of offering food to build strong relationships. Most business deals and negotiations take place over a meal. This is to make their foreign business contacts feel comfortable and fosters a sense of belonging. Just like every other type of etiquette, dining etiquette also requires detailed attention.
Many foreign companies become frustrated with the slow process of building relationships. While business deals often take place over the course of a meal, it might be the 3rd or 4th dinner, where potential cooperation really begins to take shape. Don’t rush your potential partners, as this process of getting to know one another over a meal is a crucial part of Chinese business etiquette.
Chinese Business Culture – Entering, Seating and Exiting:
Always remember to enter the room in order of seniority, with the highest-ranking person introducing the rest of their team to the group.
There is a certain order in which people must sit down – the more senior business people are to be seated first. After they are seated, wait for the Chinese people to show you your seat.
When the meal has finished – which often ends abruptly after the dessert – wait for the host to exit first. The Chinese will leave the meal in the same order they entered – make sure your team does the same.
Chinese Business Culture – Chopsticks:
In most cases where foreigners are invited to a meal, business will be discussed over a formal meal serving authentic Chinese food. Chinese enjoy showcasing their cuisine to their potential business partners and hope to see that their food is enjoyable to people around the world. However, since traditional Chinese food will be served, it is likely you will be provided with chopsticks.
Using chopsticks might seem unfamiliar to you, which is why it is important to know certain positive and negative gestures while using them. You must not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of food. This has connotations with funerals, thus it is considered a negative gesture. Further, never tap your bowl or plate with the chopsticks as it’s associated with begging!
It is also important to remember not to use your own chopsticks to pick food from the dishes in the centre! It is unhygienic – use the spoons provided.
Not knowing your way around a pair of chopsticks can be quite embarrassing, so take the time to practice a bit before arranging a meal with your potential partners in China. This can show your potential partners how well you are able to adapt to the local culture and foster trust in your skills among them.
Chinese Business Culture – Eating:
You should avoid eating before others start eating as this reflects a sense of impatience. Waiting for elders or senior officials to start eating first is considered more respectful.
During a business meal, there could be up to 30 courses so try not to eat too much at once! See it as an opportunity to sample each dish. A quick heads up – scorpions, snake skin, dog meat and blood may come your way as they are considered premium delicacies!
When dealing with bones, seeds or any other inedibles do not place them into the rice bowl! Simply observe how others dispose of them or place them in a tissue/small plate provided.
Join in on toasts! It’s polite to join in and stand up if those around you are. It is also polite to tap the table when someone refills your tea. Use two fingers – not your chopsticks!
Finally, you should also avoid finishing your meal too quickly, as this will make your host believe you are still hungry. Chinese tend to eat more slowly than other cultures, so finishing a meal quickly gives the impression that you are still hungry. If you want to see a funny example of this check out the video below:
Chinese Business Culture – Body language and Personal Space:
Your posture should always be formal and attentive as it signals self-control. Further, always be wary of what you are doing with your hands! Biting your nails, putting them in your mouth or trying to remove food from your teeth are considered rude. Use the toothpicks provided on the table or excuse yourself to the bathroom if you really need to.
Another thing to note – don’t point. Its considered rude, instead point with an open hand or better yet, try and get someone’s attention without using your hands at all (eye contact etc).
The Chinese are very wary of their personal space and an intrusion will make them feel uncomfortable. Never go straight for a hug, slap them on the back or touch their arm. It often considered impolite to click your fingers, whistle and blow your nose with a handkerchief if you then put back in your pocket.
Chinese Business Culture – Drinking:
Drinking is a huge part of Chinese culture and one that is worth a quick comment on here! Your Chinese counterpart might want to take you drinking to see how you fare – and also have a good time!
You will most likely be drinking “bai jiu” – an extremely strong drink which could be compared to fuel! It’s not for the faint hearted! Make sure you eat something before you embark on this journey – much like the business negotiations, it’s a marathon not a sprint so take your time.
If you think you will be doing a lot of drinking on your business trip this is a really good article to check out!
Who pays for the meal?
The host will be responsible for paying for the meal as a token of gratitude. This is one of the most important parts of the meal. Chinese will often insist to pay the bill. While you should offer some light protest, don’t fight them on the issue, as this can cause them to lose “face.”
If you are wondering how many times to offer, twice is adequate unless the bill is expensive, then a third time is acceptable.
However, if you invite someone to do an activity or have a meal, you are expected to pay. If this is the case, do not show your money to the other guests. Simply excuse yourself to the toilet and take care of the bill payments.
Chinese Business Etiquette – Gift-Giving:
- What kind of gifts are expected:
Gift giving etiquette is one of the customs in Chinese business culture. Chinese business officials often prefer to give gifts that have a strong connection with the local culture such as Chinese tea or spirits. You might want to offer gifts as well to show a gesture of exchange.
Gifts that are too expensive might make the receiver feel uncomfortable, so be sure that your gift is appropriately priced. On the other hand, gifts that are too cheap will also receive a negative reaction. Gift-giving requires careful consideration so take your time and make sure you do it right. The results can be fantastic though, so don’t shy away from it.
- What kind of gifts to offer:
Offering simple gifts that have extensive cultural meaning will impress your Chinese business contacts. You must avoid giving gifts that have negative connotations in the Chinese culture. This includes clocks and sharp items such as scissors or knives.
Good gifts would be items that are representative of your own culture. Things like spirits, fruits, sweets or other similar items are all popular gifts for Chinese business partners. Still confused? This blog has a comprehensive list of gift ideas and the reasons behind them!
One thing to note is that Chinese business officials do not open the gifts while their guests are still present, so bare this in mind when giving and receiving gifts! Much like business cards, it is vital that you always give and receive gifts with both hands in Chinese culture.
If you do decide to bring gifts, a good rule of thumb is to always double up. The Chinese don’t like odd numbers so bring two of each item instead of one! This isn’t a set-in-stone tradition, but it just looks right and aligns with Chinese cultural beliefs.
Do not wrap gifts in black or white paper! Chose festival colors – pretty much just always stick with red!
Finally … just be yourself!
Always be true to yourself, the Chinese place a high value on authenticity. The more genuine, respectful and observant you are, the more highly regarded you will be to your host and/or potential business partner.
In conclusion, Chinese business officials appreciate cultural differences, as they do not completely expect you to understand Chinese business culture.
However, by knowing the most common aspects of Chinese business etiquette, you can effectively build close relationships with your Chinese business contacts. These close relationships can lead to successful business deals or negotiations.
Keen to know more? Read our blog on How to Establish Trust in China