Imagine you’re going on vacation to China. You’re reading up on the specific destinations you want to visit, and learning some basic phrases in Mandarin to get you around the major cities. You’re probably even checking the weather to make sure you know what to pack.
But if you’re going to China for business, that’s a different matter entirely.
Doing business in China requires you learn a very specific subset of the country’s culture. Traditional Chinese business etiquette and customs are different than those of Western culture, so you need to brush up on them if you plan to visit the People’s Republic for professional purposes. Why? Because understanding Chinese business etiquette is vital so you avoid slipping up and offending your Chinese business partners (no one wants that).
Here are 17 typical practices conducted in Chinese business culture you should learn and implement during your overseas dealings:
1. Understand the importance of face.
The topic of face is of utmost importance when doing business in China. The best way to explain this concept is through the phrase “keeping face.” Basically, in all your interactions with the Chinese, you can gain or lose face (much like a reputation). Giving others compliments, for example, will help you gain face, while exposing a failure means you’ll lose face. Note face-building may take some time and occur over several meetings.
2. Be well-prepared for your meeting.
The Chinese are often very detail-oriented, so they will have done their research on your company, and will expect you to have done the same on theirs. This includes making sure you don’t schedule a meeting during a Chinese holiday not recognized in Western culture, and knowing exactly who will be making the final decisions about the business transaction. You’ll also want to send any meeting room requirements (tech, equipment, etc.) to your Chinese colleagues well in advance of the actual gathering.
3. Make quality printed materials.
If you’re planning on bringing any materials to your meeting, print everything out in plain black and white on premium paper; colors can have different meanings in China than in the West, so it’s best to avoid them. Handouts and business cards should also boast Chinese versions (see point #4 below). Always bring extra copies of printed materials to avoid running short and offending any Chinese colleague who doesn’t get a copy.
4. Decide if a gift is appropriate.
Gift-giving is a tricky topic according to Chinese business etiquette. Government officials will consider the giving of gifts to be bribery, which is not only considered disrespectful, but is also downright illegal in many cases. However, in the business world, gift-giving policies are becoming more lax; as such, a gift can be welcomed as a sign of good will towards building a business relationship. Do some digging and find out if gifts would be appropriate or offensive to your particular Chinese counterparts before you make any purchases (then read up on China’s extensive gift-gifting traditions).
5. Anticipate language differences.
Make sure you know ahead of time if your Chinese business partners speak English, and find a translation solution if they don’t. As for any meeting materials or business cards you may have prepared to hand out, be courteous and provide a Chinese translation of the materials. Get these bilingual materials professionally translated so you don’t make any offensive errors. Even if the partners you’re meeting with speak English, their superiors (who will make any final business decisions) may not, and you want them to feel respected, too.
6. Dress to show respect.
Know the appropriate dress code for your business meeting. In China, most government officials and top-level management dress formally for meetings, while mid- to lower-level employees can wear more casual attire. When in doubt, always dress up in a suit to show respect. Darker, muted colors are acceptable, while bright colors should be avoided, and women should never wear low-cut tops, a distasteful choice according to both men and women in Chinese business.
7. Show up on time.
Punctuality in any business situation is important, but even more so in Chinese business culture. Being late is considered offensive and rude. Give yourself ample time to arrive at the meeting; if you run into problems, you’ll be thankful for the time cushion.
8. Enter the room in proper order.
The Chinese have a high respect for authority, dating back centuries, and so they usually enter the room in hierarchical order. Follow their practice with your own teammates as you enter the room. The person with the highest level of seniority should go in first, followed by the next highest-ranking individual in consecutive order.
9. Conduct formal introductions.
It’s typical Chinese business culture to nod or bow in greeting (starting with senior-level business people); however, handshakes are becoming more common. Let your Chinese counterpart initiate a handshake. Also, use proper titles (Chairman, Vice President, etc.) followed by surnames (i.e. Li or Zhang) when addressing your overseas business partners. Those who use their full names will put their surname before their given/first name. Chinese business people will commonly say first their company’s name, then their title, and finally their name; follow their lead.
10. Engage in small talk.
The Chinese like doing business with people they know and trust, so even the art of small talk before a meeting is considered important. A typical pleasantry on the Chinese’s part includes asking you if you’ve eaten or where you’ve been recently. Acceptable discussion topics include almost anything related to Chinese culture (art, history, etc.), weather, and personal or family topics.
11. Understand Chinese communication.
Negative words like “no” shouldn’t be used in discussion; instead, use a phrase like “I’ll need some more time to think about that.” When the Chinese say something like “it’s okay” or “not a problem,” they likely mean the opposite. Also, controversial topics like politics should be avoided, especially when a Western idea of society clashes with that of the Chinese (their local “sphere of influence” is considered none of your business).
12. Avoid hand movements, body contact, and unnecessary noises.
The Chinese don’t use their hands to speak, so instead of pointing with an index finger, use an open palm. Never put your hand in your mouth — it’s a rude gesture. The Chinese also dislike body contact such as back slaps or arm touching, and often consider noises like clicking your fingers, whistling, and even blowing your nose with a handkerchief you then put back in your pocket to be impolite.
13. Stay composed and poised.
Chinese business etiquette includes keeping your composure at all times, even if you get upset or excited about a situation. It’s also important to maintain proper body posture throughout the business dealings. For example, in addition to the impolite hand gestures mentioned above, avoid slouching or putting your feet on the table.
14. Follow the accepted meeting structure.
The meeting host will take a seat first, followed by everyone else. In many situations, senior-level members from both sides will lead the proceedings, with the host first presenting his or her side, followed by senior member of your team. Lower-level colleagues typically only provide their thoughts and more information when called upon.
15. Exchange business cards.
Doing business in China, just like in the West, includes giving business cards. The Chinese, however, use both hands to present their cards, and always to the highest-ranking individual first; make sure to copy this tradition. Look at received cards politely before saving them in a professional location (like a briefcase, but never a purse or wallet). And, as mentioned earlier, make your business card bilingual out of respect to your Chinese counterparts, with your professional title clearly stated.
16. Allow the Chinese to leave first.
This is considered another respectful move on your part; wait until the host ends the meeting and stands up before doing the same. The Chinese will leave the meeting in the order they came in (hierarchical). Make sure your team also leaves in proper order, just in case one of your Chinese colleagues catches you breaking rank at the end of the business dealings.
17. Expect to wait on a response.
Again, building personal relationships with business partners is very important to the Chinese. This means they will not immediately close a business deal after just one meeting. It’s also typical for the Chinese to extend negotiations beyond deadlines, so don’t inquire about deadlines or remind your overseas colleagues about them.
Doing business in China gives your company a chance to expand and grow, but you have to do so correctly if you hope to close a deal with your overseas colleagues. If you follow these 17 Chinese business etiquette tips, you’ll be well on your way towards a beneficial partnership with one of the most powerful countries in all of Asia.
Have you ever done business in China? How did it go? Feel free to share your good (or embarrassing) stories in the comments!