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Business Etiquette in China

Doing business abroad can come with complications, but it is not just travel and language hurtles. You also encounter cultural obstacles when doing business in China and other foreign countries. Avoid missteps and embarrassing moments that could cost you business. Follow these tips for business etiquette in China.

Chinese business etiquette

Chinese Business Etiquette is More Than Minding Manners 

Your values and reputation are essential to success in business throughout Asia. In China, business requires personal relationships and trust. Be sure to make a good impression. 

  • Be modest, patient, and polite.
  • Respect elders and people in higher ranking positions.
  • Always act in accordance with giving and saving face.
  • Attend social and networking events in your industry or business.
  • Follow up with people after making personal connections or having an introduction.
  • Do not accept or give direct praise. Say “it was nothing” or something similar when complimented. Compliments are still positive. Giving a person praise by delivering it to their boss or other respected people will be appreciated.
  • Never interrupt, even in periods of silence.

For more about saving and giving face see our article on Korean business etiquetteChinese business etiquette

Body language is an important form of nonverbal communication. Be mindful: 

  • Stand for introductions and remain standing until the introductions are complete.
  • Do not use large hand gestures, snap, or point. (Whistling is also not okay.)
  • Always keep composed and avoid shows of high emotion. 
  • Maintain good, straight, and attentive posture.
  • Prolonged eye contact is considered aggressive.
  • Some Chinese will look at the floor during greetings as a token of respect. 
  • Touch should be avoided outside of close friends or family (except handshakes initiated by the other person).
  • Keep a neutral expression while discussing business. Frowning is a show of disagreement.Chinese business etiquette

What to wear for business in China: 

  • Convey respect and seriousness by dressing in traditional, conservative business wear. 
  • Avoid colorful clothing, staying with subtle neutral or monochrome colors.
  • Women should avoid high heels or short sleeved blouses. 

Business Etiquette: Understanding Meetings in China

Like everything in China, there are assumed rituals and matters of etiquette that are part of successful meetings. Before even starting a meeting be sure to: 

  • Check the Chinese calendar to be sure there are no conflicts.
    • Business hours are 8am to 5pm 
    • Chinese business is on break from 12pm to 2pm
  • Schedule with a lot of buffer time since the Chinese are notorious for delayed decisions and prolonged process. 
  • Do not bring gifts. They are highly valuable in building relationships, but not appropriate at business meetings. They may look like bribes, especially to government officials.
  • Be punctual. Being late is considered rude. Try being a little early. 
  • Have translators on-hand if you are uncertain about language capabilities. 
  • Address your host and counterparts by title, in order of seniority. Chinese business etiquette

Introductions: 

  • The order of entering a room is usually done hierarchically. Pay attention. Whoever comes in first on your team will also seem to be the lead. 
  • Things to know about Chinese names and titles: 
    • Titles are of utter importance in China.
    • Last names in China come before the first name.
      Ex) President George Washington would read Washington George (no comma). He would still be addressed President Washington. It would be rude to call him President George by mistake. 
    • Address people with titles. Do not call people by their first name or drop the title unless expressly told to. 
    • Your title will determine the access you have to people, meetings, and events. It will even determine seating. 
    • Women do not take a married name. They keep their maiden name when married. Pay attention to introductions.
  • Handshakes or bowing? 
    • Handshakes often start meetings. However, if no handshake is offered, then bow. Wait for people who are senior to offer a handshake.
      If a handshake goes on a while, do not disengage. It is a sign that things are going well.
    • Bowing is a traditional form of salutation, thanks, and sorry.
      Learn how to bow correctly. Keep your hands at your side and bow from the waist up. 
  • Business cards are very important. 
    • Print business cards in Chinese (or Chinese on one side).
    • Give cards to the most senior person first.
    • Both hands are used for giving and receiving items like gifts, checks, or business cards. Always give and receive cards with both hands, the writing facing up and towards the receiver, and a slight bow. 
    • Take a moment to look at and consider each business card. Treat them with respect. Do not put them in pockets or fold them.
    • Leave business cards on the table and when putting them away, have a respectable business card case to put them in. 
    • Do not write on business cards. 

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At the meeting: 

  • Seats will often be assigned or directed to by the host. 
  • Do not speak until the meeting host, often the most senior person, makes an introduction. They may also introduce some or all of their colleagues. They may also state their position on the matter at hand. After they are done, your most senior person should follow in suit. 
  • Be prepared. If you have materials, be sure you have a copy for everyone in attendance. 
  • Avoid flashy colors in materials. The safest bet is to stick to black-and-white. 
  • Note that white is a funeral color. Red is a color of celebration. Gold connotes prestige and wealth. 
  • Decisions will likely not be made at the meeting. Decisions are frequently delayed, so be prepared and have time padded.

Leaving the meeting: 

  • Guests are expected to leave before the host and their party.

Personal and Social Relationships are Business Relationships in China

Small talk is part of creating business relationships in China. Most business will not complete until a strong personal relationship is established. Expect delays on decisions or contract signings until the Chinese counterparts are comfortable with you.

Personal questions are standard, looking for common ground. Avoid, however, charged political or controversial topics. The Chinese are looking for authenticity and creating common ground.

Greetings Are Not Meant to Be Answered

Same as “How are you?” when saying hello to a business associate does not suspect a detailed answer, greeting in China are rhetorical. Common greetings include “Have you eaten?” or “Where have you been?” Simply answer “Yes” if you have eaten. Answering “thank you” and smiling and/or bowing is a good answer if not or to any greeting. 

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