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Quick Tips on Chinese Business Etiquette

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Quick Tips on 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.


In addition, the moral excellence of being humble and polite shapes the business etiquette in the Chinese culture. Chinese business etiquette relies on relationships to provide social comfort and a peaceful working environment. The concept of “face” places an important role in Chinese business etiquette. Newcomers to the market must be aware of the many ways you cause potential partners to gain and lose “face.”


Learning business etiquette to expand your business into different geographical markets?


a. Business etiquette


When approaching new markets, proper business etiquette is necessary to gain trust and impress your clients. In the Chinese business culture, spending quality time with business contacts to make them feel comfortable is a common approach to doing business.


b. Chinese business etiquette


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. We’ll go over in more detail some common practices for improving your relationships with your potential Chinese business partners in this blog.


Chinese business etiquette can be narrowed down to three major types.


Meeting Etiquette:


1. Setting the first impression:


a. Dressing


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. In Chinese business etiquette, dressing in formal dark colors is considered professional compared to bright colored clothing.


b. Punctuality


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


In addition, at the start of a meeting, greeting each other with a handshake is a polite gesture to ease into further discussion. Following a handshake, it is crucial to exchange business cards with your contacts. 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.


2. Chatting:


a. Smalltalk


Small talk is required to gain initial attention by getting your business contacts engaged in your conversation. During small talk you should talk about your knowledge of the local Chinese culture such as Chinese art, scenery or popular tourist attractions. 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.


b. Tone


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.


Dining Etiquette:




1. Dining and business deals:


Furthermore, 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 a sense of belonging. Just like every other type of etiquette, dining etiquette also requires detailed attention. There is a specific sequence of order in which everyone will be seated.


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.


Read more about China Wine Market.


2. How to use chopsticks appropriately:


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.


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.


3. Start and finish eating:


In addition, 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.


You should also avoid finishing your meal too quickly, as this will make your host believe you are likely still hungry. Chinese tend to eat more slowly than other cultures (likely due to the use of chopsticks),  so finishing a meal quickly gives the impression that you are likely still hungry. If you want to see a funny example of this check out the video below:



4. 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.” When dessert is served you can anticipate the end of the meeting soon. To end the meeting smoothly, one of the senior officials will stand up to briefly thank everyone who had been a part of the meeting.


Gift-giving Etiquette:


Always give and receive with both hands in Chinese culture

Always give and receive with both hands in Chinese culture


1. 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.


2. What kind of gifts to offer:


Therefore, 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, or other items are all popular gifts for Chinese business partners.  

Comparison between Western and Chinese business etiquette:



1. Handshake:


Firstly, in western business etiquette, there are certain restrictions to a handshake such as between a male and a female, the female must be the first to offer a handshake. However, in Chinese business etiquette, any one of the parties involved can offer a handshake.


2. Calling out names:


Moreover, in the Chinese business culture, it is more respectful to say an individual’s position before their name, for example, “Professor Zhang”. However, in the western business culture, by calling out their first name with no reference to their position will be considered a sign of close relationship. Even in close relationships, it is still common to use a person’s title before their name in professional settings.


3. Gifts:


a. Types of gifts to offer


Furthermore, Western business officials focus mostly on the usage of the gifts they offer. Therefore, they offer simple gifts that can be used by most people such as flowers or wine. In contrast, Chinese business officials like to offer gifts with a cultural connection to enhance the uniqueness of their gifts.


b. Opening gifts


One thing to note is that Chinese business officials do not open the gifts while their guests are still present, whereas western business contacts open the gifts to appreciate what they have received.


Read more about Doing business in China




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.


Read More: How to Establish Trust in China












Anthony De Gennaro

An American in Asia for the last 4 years who's gone from teaching English in Beijing to an MBA degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Social media marketing enthusiast striving to help companies expand their reach to the China market.

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