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East meets West: TOP 10 Chinese Business Cultural Differences

Dragon Social > Doing Business in China  > East meets West: TOP 10 Chinese Business Cultural Differences
East Meets West, Chinese business cultural differences

East meets West: TOP 10 Chinese Business Cultural Differences

When East meets West at the negotiation table, Chinese business cultural differences come to the forefront. They hit foreign entrepreneurs who are starting to do business in China like an avalanche of problems they have never encountered before.


Chinese business cultural differences

When East meets West, a unique experience must be expected. Are you aware of Top 10 Chinese business cultural differences? Click and learn more!

Source: thetibetpost


People, who were born in China and lived in the West for a long time, can easily outline these business cultural differences between Chinese and Western cultures.


Yang Liu, an artist and a visual designer, was born in China and has been living in Germany since the age of 14. Yang experienced the differences between the two cultures first-hand. To express her knowledge in a creative, yet unusual, way, she created several minimalistic visualizations using just symbols and shapes.


The blue side represents Germany and, hence, Western culture. The red side is about China and, thus, the culture of China. Look at these images very attentively!


1. Lifestyle: Independent vs. dependent


In the Western culture, people view themselves as independent entities. In contrast to them, the Chinese culture stresses interdependence between human beings.


Chinese business cultural differences

Source: bsix12, East Meets West

For many Chinese people, listening quietly and processing information while listening to discussions on negotiations is the way to fit in and show their good character. For Chinese people, it is the right way of behaving is a calm and attentive way, which shows their good interdependent self. It is the Chinese style.


The Western style that is very different from business practices in China. On negotiations and conferences, they often stand up and speak up. They do what is more convenient for them. Getting excited about something and smiling is one of the ways to show their interest and approval. In this way, they express themselves as a good independent self.


2. Attitude towards punctuality


International businesses often encounter situations where their interpretation of “on-time” is different from that of their overseas business partners.


Chinese business culture

Source: bsix12, East Meets West


Adherence to punctuality seems to be in the blood of the Western people. Punctuality on arrival at business negotiations is very important. It fits the Western stereotype on the picture perfectly.


Punctuality is a virtue in Chinese business culture as well. Yet, on average the Chinese are 10 minutes late for engagements. But it is not unusual at all that foreigners walk into the meeting room when their Chinese partners are probably already waiting for them. Many Chinese people indeed come to a meeting earlier than necessary.


3. Attitude towards senior managers


In the Chinese hierarchical and collectivistic culture, it is extremely important to show your respect for your senior managers. Subordinates don’t disagree and/or criticize their bosses, at least not directly or in public.


Chinese business culture

Source: bsix12, East Meets West


In contrast to a Chinese counterpart, an individualistic Westerner doesn’t hesitate to share their ideas with their boss and to disagree. That’s why if you are a foreigner and your boss is Chinese, you have to take into account this cultural difference. The best way is to voice your verbal approval of your senior manager’s idea and only then speak up, explain, and advocate your own approach.


If you are a foreign businessman who is going to have business negotiations with Chinese partners, you should follow the same approach. It becomes even more important if the social status of the Chinese party is higher than that of a foreigner.

4. Problem-solving approach


In China, many people speak English very well, especially in the coastal cities on the mainland and in Hong Kong. They follow Western news and know a lot about Western politics, economics, fashion, and so on. China’s structural reforms and liberalization have influenced Chinese people in the way that they have become more westernized.


Chinese business cultural differences

Source: bsix12, East Meets West


Yet, it has not been enough to solve one of the most daunting challenges for foreigners in China. The approach of the Chinese people to problem-solving is different from that of Westerners. This often prevents them from achieving a satisfying outcome of a deal and, at times, from finding solutions to pressing issues.


The individualistic nature of Westerners encourages them to speak up and articulate what they think of a project or a proposed solution to the problem. Vigorous debates, brainstorming, challenging ideas (such as “playing devil’s advocate”) are a way to refine and improve strategies and plans. All these techniques of discourse during business negotiations and meetings are normal and accepted in the West.


Among peers, those Westerners who are confident and fearless in offering their ideas are viewed as highly intelligent and impressive people. Senior managers encourage their subordinates to share ideas, opinions, and predictions.


The Chinese business culture interprets the whole idea of “speaking up” differently. Chinese partners perceive the way lots of the Westerners approach solving problems as disrupting the “harmony” of the meeting. The Chinese people listen with the utmost attention, mull over the situation and the problem, and remain quiet until they are asked by their seniors, if they are asked at all.


problem-solving approach China


Source: clarkmorgan


That’s why during negotiations with colleagues from China, foreigners might be frustrated when Chinese partners don’t ask questions and speak up. In the Western culture, the leadership truly believes that one can find the best solution if diverse voices are heard. So, it becomes their mission to encourage the Chinese party to speak up.


5. Business connections and contact

Ask a Chinese person about what is truly Chinese about many Chinese businesses. They will respond straight away: first and foremost, it is the way they connect with other businesses run by ethnic Chinese people overseas.


Chinese business culture guanxi

Source: bsix12, East Meets West


Doing business in China and being successful is inextricably related to having a strong bond with government bodies – your guanxi.


Ethnic and social networks of business contacts and relationships shape the nature of business in many industries. They also make it possible to benefit from transnational economic synergies in China, Hong Kong, and in the South East Asia. These relationships are sometimes referred to as the “bamboo network”.


the “bamboo network”

Source: slideshare


In countries of the South-East Asia region, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Coastal zone of China, overseas and interconnected Chinese business families often dominate and propel the emerging economies. They, too, are the bamboo network.


Nowadays, it is common when the successful ethical Chinese business families control dozens and sometimes hundreds of medium-sized businesses and conglomerates in several countries.


Having a good relationship with governments in the West is not as crucial for success as it is in China. A vibrant Western networking culture allows foreigners to take full advantage of special relationships with partners all over the world. Yet, most of these relationships are not are interconnected, like it is in China.


The other of Yang’s shapes and visualizations are about doing business in China. That’s why there will be no more references to Yang’s creations in this article.


6. The concept of Face in Chinese business culture


If you are planning to do business in China, you must understand the pivotal concept of “Face,” or miànzi (面子). The cult of Face in China has always been and will always be an essential part of the Chinese culture.


Chinese business culture the cult of Face

Source: slideshare


The culture of China places a huge importance on Face that represents a person’s reputation and feelings of accomplishment and prestige within the workplace, the family, personal friends, and society at large. In China, people build and maintain the network of contacts through giving Face and helping one’s friends increase their prestige. Face is also closely tied to relationships, or guanxi.


Foreigners should understand that the Chinese people may either be gaining face or losing it in every situation. For example, if subordinates praise their senior manager for the successful completion of a project, they gain Face. If a Chinese executive has a prestigious education, it adds to their Face.


Losing Face is much more than being embarrassed or mortified. An example of losing Face by a Chinese person is when their reputation has been besmirched.


Chinese business culture the cult of Face

Source: china-mike


If you are a foreigner doing business in China, you have to deal with the concept of Face every day. There are several things that you should keep in mind:


  • Whenever you meet with a Chinese partner who outranks you or is older than you, show your utmost respect to them and gain Face in their eyes;
  • Always give Face to your partners and connections if you want them to help you;
  • Try to both give Face and develop a long-term relationship with the recipient.


The concept of Face is an organic part of the Chinese society and mindset, as well of the Chinese business practices. Honoring traditions and, hence, your Chinese partners will always notice and appreciate your giving Face to them and their friends. You can always gain Face by praising your Chinese partners and more by promoting social harmony.


7. The role of modesty in Chinese business practices


Nowadays, Chinese businessmen are now more aware of international rules and etiquette than years ago. Yet, if East meets West at the negotiation table, then accommodations, which recognize and respect conflicting cultural approaches to interpersonal communications, are required for success.


The Chinese business culture and etiquette are very special. One important cultural difference is the divergence between what is considered appropriate when selling your most valuable assets: yourself and your people.


Chinese business practices

Source: cbkcuhk


Western cultures typically encourage people to promote themselves. After all, if you do not believe in yourself and your talents, why should anyone else believe in you? However, such an approach to a potential business partner in China could result in many misunderstandings and, hence, failed negotiations.


In the Chinese business culture, people see modesty as an indication that the person is actually quite accomplished. The opposite of what such reticence would communicate in the West. From the standpoint of the Chinese people, a Westerner’s confidence and eager willingness to describe their accomplishments are seen as off-putting, sometimes even rude.


At the negotiation table, a foreign entrepreneur should not flaunt their achievements and personalities if they want to impress their Chinese counterparts. Boasting of your achievements might lead to the end of negotiations and lost opportunities.


If you are foreigner doing business in China, don’t offend potential partners. Think about how to present your own and your company’s success in advance. Try to learn more about the Chinese business practices while preparing for negotiations.


And if you detect discomfort from your Chinese contacts, it is typically not too late to moderate your approach. Your modest manner of leading a conversation and presenting your business or project will have a better impact on your Chinese partner and a more favorable result than a long recitation of your accomplishments.


Never forget that the modes of expression about your company and success are different in the perception of the Chinese and Western civilizations.


8. Differences in communication


Cross-cultural communications can be a real challenge in situations of West meeting East in China. For some people, Chinese business etiquette might a tough thing to grasp. Here are several very important things about verbal communication with your Chinese partners that you cannot overlook.


1. The form of addressing Chinese partners


When you meet with your Chinese partners, you have to bear in mind that Chinese names are “reversed” from Western names.


addressing Chinese partners

Source: gbtimes


A typical Chinese name consists of: a surname known as xing (姓, xìng), which comes first and is followed by one’s first name called ming (名, míng). Foreigners have to make sure that they address their Chinese partners in the correct manner so that no embarrassment is caused.


2. Eye contact


Foreigners must be aware of the difference in the perception of eye contact. All of the Western countries have fairly similar social expectations of when and where eye contact is appropriate. It is absolutely normal to look into the eyes of your companion most of the time. In the light of this, it is a simple social interaction which shows a person’s interest and engagement with the conversation.


The Chinese people place profound importance on respect. Due to hierarchies in Asian societies, their social behavior reflects this. Your Chinese partners believe that eyes are not the central point of focus during a conversation or a discussion.


Therefore, eye contact is not essential to social interaction in the opinion of the Chinese people. If East meets West, it might be viewed as inappropriate.


Chinese business culture eye contact

Source: business-cards-review


So, if your Chinese partners tend to avoid eye contact during your first meeting and further negotiations, be aware that it is not a sign of mistrust, unhappiness, or disapproval. It is just a standard Chinese business practice. The Chinese people think that staring directly into one’s eyes is impolite and, perhaps, even a bit aggressive.


3. Casual talk


Usually, Chinese do not dive straight away into business topics. Casual talk is expected and encouraged. When meeting your partner for the first time, engage them in a polite, but general, conversation before starting to talk about business.


Casual conversations in China are different from those in the West. It would be impolite of a foreigner to ask about their companion’s position at the company, salary, and marital status. A good and polite way to start a conversation would be to bring up some of your positive experiences in China. You should endeavor to show your respect to the Chinese culture, and your partner will appreciate it a lot.


9. Non-verbal communication


The nonverbal communication contains gestures, facial expressions, the manner of speaking, and tones of voice. It frequently turns out to be more powerful than verbal communication. Foreigners may make the most of their non-verbal communication if they know some of the general non-verbal communication gestures in China.


1. Greeting


If you and your Chinese partners approach the negotiation room together, you should allow the most important member of the Chinese party to enter first. If you think that the Chinese can start the meeting, allow that person to do this.


Chinese business etiquette

Source: Trendy Feeds


In China, when a younger person greets an older one, they should lower head and slightly bend upper body in respect. If your Chinese partner is older than you, always act in this manner.


If someone is making the introductions, don’t introduce yourself, as it will surely be considered disrespectful. So, when it is your turn to be introduced, you can stand up, smile ever so slightly and look at the people who also being introduced with ease.


2. Business cards


It is a custom in the Chinese business culture to exchange business cards. Foreign entrepreneurs should expect that they will exchange them on every meeting and every networking event. You should carry many cards with you.


If your cards have the Chinese translation, it would be appreciated by your Chinese contacts. You should give your card to your companion with two hands. It is advisable to ensure that the Chinese side is facing the recipient.


3. Handshaking


Handshaking is important in China, although it is a popularly used form of greeting in many countries. The traditional Chinese “handshake” implies interlocking the fingers of hands and waving them up and down several times. But this form of handshaking is rarely used at present.


Chinese business culture handshaking

Source: scmp


While a firm grip in the West is often associated with mutual trust and friendship, a Chinese person always expects a gentle handshake.


4. Other gestures


Your Chinese partners meeting you for the first time would not appreciate if you not only shook hands but also tried to hug them. The Chinese people don’t want to be touched, except for shaking hands, unless you have a close relationship with them.


10. The importance of color


China is a culture rich with deeply embedded symbolism in mindset. Color symbolism has always been very important. It would be useful for foreigners to learn which colors are considered auspicious or inauspicious in China.


culture of china Color symbolism

Source: slideshare


Don’t confuse the red of China’s political system with the red of the Chinese people. In ancient China, red gained a positive meaning from fire. Now, the color red is associated with good luck. Red is everywhere during Chinese New Year and other holidays, as well as family gatherings and other joyful occasions. People often give each other a red envelope – some money as a gift – during holiday or special occasions.


It is vitally important to know that the color red should never be used to write cards or letters. The reason is that it symbolizes the end of a relationship or a correspondence.


culture of china Color symbolism

Source: slideshare


The color yellow was the emperor’s color in Imperial China. Even at present, it is viewed as the symbolic color of the five legendary emperors of ancient China. Yellow is associated with wealth and prosperity, while gold symbolizes something especially felicitous.


As the Chinese people place great importance on colors, you may consider having your cards printed in gold ink, the color of prestige and prosperity.


Yet, you must be careful when using yellow in your marketing campaigns for Chinese customers. As in ancient China the color yellow was reserved for use only by emperors, the abundance of yellow in your marketing materials might offend a Chinese person.

culture of china Color symbolism

Source: slideshare


The color white symbolizes purity in the Chinese culture. However, sometimes, white is associated with death and is the color worn at Chinese funerals, in contrast to the Western culture. You should remember that you should never wrap gifts in a white paper when gifting them to your Chinese partners.


You have to always be judicious in using colors in your marketing materials. Seek a sound professional advice about business practices in China and its traditions before committing to any color in your marketing campaign.


East meets West: a unique experience


Challenges can produce rewarding experiences. When East meets West, a unique experience must be expected.


Has this article been as alarming as discovering that your phone charge cord is missing? Have no fear! You are not the first, nor will you be the last, foreign entrepreneur who must learn and understand more about the culture of China and Chinese business etiquette. As long as you are prepared, you can figure out how to reasonably accommodate any cultural difference.


Dealing with the Chinese people will retain the challenges that most only find in complex role-playing games, but the potential rewards far outweigh the effort required. If you want to be successful in China, you have to be open-minded and willing to learn more about China and the Chinese business culture.


It was the second article in the series called “Doing Business in China”. You can also learn more about this important topic in our first article “Top 5 Most Important Things about Doing Business in China”. Now, hurry and educate yourself!

Olga Lyakina

Olga Lyakina has degrees in finance and general management from London Business School. She worked in investment banking and management for several years before she decided to make a career shift to digital marketing, communications, and PR.

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