Chinese Business Etiquette for Your Success

Businesspeople at a MeetingThe culture in China is very different to that of Western countries, and their business practices are also quite novel. For anyone interested in expanding their business in China, your success hinges on your understanding in the ways they do business. Knowing and understanding the customs and practices will help you relax and fit in, allow you to avoid any embarrassment, and focus on getting your business done. Whilst nothing can beat personal experience, this guide will give you a head start before you hit the ground running.

When you first get to China, you’ll have the opportunity to make many friends who are both locals and foreigners that already know the ropes. So long as you act respectful, and you’re taking matters seriously, most people will overlook any small errors you make in your table manners – just like you would for a foreigner visiting your own country. If you’re not good at picking up on social nuances, check out this course and master the art of reading body language.

When you’re in China, the best way to get started is to understand the qualities that are valued by the Chinese, as this forms the basis of all of their social interactions.

  • Saving face, and giving face to people
  • Having respect for their elders
  • Having respect for social rankings (which is particularly important when you’re dealing with authorities and government officials).
  • Demonstrating patience with your actions
  • Being polite and modest

The key to doing business in China is to use your personal relationships and to form lasting friendships with people over there. Their business community is unlike that of the United States, and often decisions are made based on the people you know and the network you have. Making your business a success requires you to establish lasting personal relationships with key players in your industry as well as the relevant government officials. If you’re just getting started you can attend industry networking events, reach out to the investment promotion bodies and follow up on all of the personal introductions you are made. You should also check out this recent post and make sure you’re professional in all of the emails you’re sending.

When you’re having a meeting with your counterparts in China, the format is quite similar to what you expect in Western business meetings. If you’ve never run one before, this course covers everything you need to know. The Chinese demonstrate respect by being punctual, so arrive on time or slightly early for any meetings you have. When scheduling a meeting keep in mind that their holidays often fall on random days, so check the Chinese calendar and avoid all national holidays, and especially Chinese New Year. Be well prepared in advance for your meeting, as Chinese businesses often meet with numerous foreign companies seeking to build a relationship, and if you fail to impress them at the initial meeting, you may not be able to secure a second.

In addition, check and confirm the language capabilities of your hosts, and if they only have limited English skills be prepared to bring your own translator. In addition, prepare Chinese language promotional materials about your company, because whilst your contact may speak English well, the decision makers in the company may not. It will be challenging for your contact to promote your business to their superiors if they are not provided with Chinese marketing material. You should also learn some simple phrases, as it will be much appreciated by your hosts. This course covers some basic phrases in Mandarin, which you can brush up on before your meeting.

When you are meeting top management or government officials, the dress code is typically formal. Business people at lower levels may be in more casual attire, but if you’re not sure it’s always better to dress formal, because it conveys both respect and seriousness. If you’ve been told to dress casual, this means polo shirts, or button down shirts with slacks. Shorts are definitely not appropriate!

Seniority is highly valued in China, and it is important to always address the people you are meeting by their title. You should also find out who the most important person in the room is, and always address them first. When you introduce yourself, state your name clearly, as well as the company you work for and your position. The Chinese typically refer to their company first, and then their title, followed by their name when they introduce themselves. Handshakes are also exchanged, and remember not to be too aggressive. Sometimes if a meeting has gone well, they’ll maintain the handshake a little longer than is comfortable, so don’t let go too fast because they only mean well.

In line with introducing yourself to the most senior people first, you should also provide your business cards to the most senior officials first. In China both hands are used when you give a gift of value, so be sure to present your business card with both hands. Take care with this, as it’s usually your first chance to make a good impression. Don’t ever put a card you receive away before taking a moment to glance at the card and acknowledge it, and make sure that yours are translated into Chinese on the reverse side. If you’re looking at designing a new business card, this course is fantastic and gives many tips and tricks to make yours truly unique. Titles are very important in China, and can often determine who is invited to meetings, the importance of what you’re saying and where you will be seated in a meeting. If you’re living and working in China for a long period, take a Chinese name that has meaning, instead of simply translating your English name. This makes it easier for people to remember your name, and is also a sign of respect. A Chinese friend could help you with this.

In addition to the boardroom, many business deals get made over a meal. If it’s your first time in China, your best bet is to take your cues from the host, and only start eating once they begin. Normally there are cold dishes prepared and placed on the tables as you are seated, so wait for the invitation to begin before you start nibbling. At higher end restaurants, there will be an almost constant rotation of dishes as well as frequent replacements of your plate with a clean one. A normal meal will consist of a variety of different meats, peak with a fish course, and then a staple like rice, dumplings or noodles and wind down with a dessert.

If you have food allergies it’s ok to refuse food, but it’s a sign of politeness to accept some portion of every dish. If there is a dish you don’t particularly like, never eat all of it as this can be taken as a sign you want more. A simple nod to the wait staff and you’re plate will be exchanged in no time. In banquets local wine is often served, but the drink of choice is typically strong distilled alcohol called baiju or maotai. There are normally many toasts during a meal, and under normal circumstances don’t push foreigners to drink. It’s a good idea to eat something before the toasts begin, and if you cannot (or do not) drink for medical or religious reasons tell your host in advance so they can make arrangements not to embarrass you.

Toasts are usually begun by the host, who gives thanks for your presence and celebrates the friendship or deal you are working to build. Guests are expected to toast a few courses after the host has toasted. Your comments should be sincere, and your toast shouldn’t be longer than the one your host has made. After a toast, the Chinese say “gan bei” which literally translates to bottoms up.

During a meal the conversation is much like that of a social event. The discussion will mostly just be on the pleasantries, and general information about the industry, or particular companies. It ‘s not a time for negotiations or discussing business challenges. The host is the one who pays for the meal, and if you are hosting yourself do not show money in front of your guests. Slip out and settle the tab during the evening, or wait until your guests have left the restaurant before paying. Once the meal is complete, there is often little time to linger, as once the senior member of the hosting party decides to leave, they’ll quickly be followed by their staff, offering a brief thank you for attending. It seems a little abrupt the first time you experience it, but is a decisive way to bring the occasion to a conclusion. If you have brought gifts, it’s at this time you exchange them. Giving a gift is very common, and must be prepared for. Don’t purchase anything too extravagant, as the gifts you receive will often have a local meaning. The best gifts to give are something from your home country that is unique. Wrapping should be in dark red, gold or blue paper.

Doing business in China is much like doing business in the rest of the world, and with a little foresight you will be building strong relationships in no time that will help guide your company to success. Be respectful and courteous of the local traditions, and remember that everyone is there for the same goal, to boost both companies to the next level.