If you’re looking for a China guide for tourists, you won’t find it here. If, however, you need to learn about business etiquette in China so your company can start trading there effectively, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the most important concepts in Chinese culture as applied to professional interactions. In short, how to act, speak and comport yourself while doing business in China. Business etiquette in meetings.The handshake or bow
It’s almost a cliché at this point, depicted in so many movies that you’ve almost certainly considered it: you’re meeting your potential Chinese business partner for the first time. You hold out a hand; they start to bow…
But don’t worry. When doing business with foreigners, the handshake has become the norm in China. It’s not the traditional way things are done, but it has become the standard.
Do remember to bring your business cards with you to your meeting and do make sure that they have both English and Chinese translations of your details on them. You should also remember to give and receive business cards with respect. So, for example:
Proffer your business card with both hands
Read a card you have been given first before putting it away
Never put a card in your back pocket or otherwise treat it casually – consider buying a special wallet for business cards you are given
Do not write or take notes on a business card, especially in front of the person it belongs to
Vagueness in time and the verbal agreement
Although it might be a strange idea to those not used to the local concept of time, a strict adherence to the precise hour set for a business meeting is not expected in Chinese culture. Late (or early) arrival is not necessarily a sign of a lack of respect or rudeness.
Finally, another important aspect of Chinese business culture has to do with verbal agreements. Unlike in the West, giving someone your “word” on a particular topic usually means very little in China and isn’t relied upon. So don’t be surprised if someone else’s verbal promise counts for less than you might expect.
You can also find some more key points relevant to business meetings in China in the “Confucian doctrine, decision making and concession” section below.
Key concepts and points
- Bow or handshake? There’s no need to worry. The handshake is how you will greet potential partners.
- Business cards. Make sure you have some cards with both Chinese and English text on them. Treat cards you receive with respect.
- Time is measured less precisely. Don’t be concerned or annoyed if your business partners arrive late to a meeting. Chinese people can simply be less focussed on the exact time something happens at.
- Verbal agreements. Count for very little, even when they happen in official meetings. Don’t rely on them.
Chinese business etiquette and “face” – what to say and what not to say.Face
The concept of “face” (or miàn zi) is incredibly important in China and should be borne in mind in all your professional dealings. “Face” can be roughly understood as personal dignity, pride or honour. Tied up in the concept of face are your personal and social standing and your appearance in general. Thus, if you’re correctly dressed and behaving correctly things will go a lot more smoothly than if you aren’t.
All steps should be taken to avoid losing face or to act in a way which would cause someone else to lose face. Because, frankly, no one wants to lose face and they will strenuously try to prevent it! This means arguing with someone or complaining about an issue which another person is responsible for – particularly in a meeting or in any situation where other people are present – is not going to go well. Because if the other person accepts the blame they will lose face.
There’s another concept linked to the idea of face:
The idea stoicism or forbearance (often written as rěn) is much admired in China. It’s a long-held attitude derived from historical community judicial practices and one that’s naturally become deeply ingrained into many aspects of the culture.
If you can put up with something, this is seen as laudable. Conversely, if you lose your temper you will have failed to display sufficient stoicism and will likely lose face because of it.
When it comes to small talk between meetings, don’t be surprised if things progress quickly to your relationships at home, how much you’re being paid, and most particularly your health. In short, things that someone from Europe or America might see as a little too personal for a brief or casual chat! These sorts of topics of conversation are viewed as reasonably innocuous in China though, while conversations about politics are best avoided.
Key concepts and points
- Face (miàn zi). The idea of your own dignity, honour, appearance and social standing. Never act in a way which would mean you would lose face or which would cause someone else to lose face – especially if you want to make friends.
- Forbearance (rěn). It’s a virtue to display stoicism. Consequently, showing anger or displeasure is an easy way to lose face!
- Small talk can get personal fast. But avoid talking about politics.
Facial expressions and body language in China.The lack of facial expressions and body language in China in many circumstances can take some getting used to. It’s usual to display little facial expression here, meaning that it can be difficult to judge a person’s reaction to a proposition – especially in situations where you might have been expecting some sort of protest or displeasure. Again, this is linked to the concept of forbearance and the idea that a person should be able to put up with whatever occurs.
Bowing in China is usually done only when wishing to display deep respect and the once famous kow-tow, which involves bowing right down to the ground, is now only seen in religious ceremonies.
Key concepts and points
- Facial expressions can be minimal. So watch carefully if you want to gauge someone’s reaction.
Making connections and the “closed system”.Making connections is absolutely critical when doing business in China. Building your own guān xì, meaning “network” or “closed system” – people you have some sort of connection with and can count on for favours and so on – is simply a part of life and everyone does it.
You will need to cultivate your own network if you want to compete here. Having a network can be of great benefit wherever you do business, of course, but in China the power of the network is all-pervading. Businesspeople will be constantly seeking to grow their own network. The idea of zǒu hòu mén or being able to “go in by the back door” is commonplace. Connections are power.
Key concepts and points
Network (guān xì). The idea of the “old boy’s network” is something that Chinese business culture takes to the extreme! Make sure to start building yours. Confucian doctrine, decision making and concession.Age and seniority
In accordance with Confucian doctrine, age and seniority are highly respected in China. This should be remembered when decisions are being made in the professional setting as the older and more senior figures may have more weight given to their opinions.
In a more general sense, it can also be seen as inappropriate for junior members of a team to initiate a discussion unless invited to do so by a senior member. All in all, the web of relationships based on social standing influenced by age and status is an important thing to get to grips with when trying to understand Chinese culture.
The yin and yang of decision making
As the decision-making process continues, try not to be upset if a polite excuse or reason is given to put the final decision off a little, for instance when signing a contract. There’s no animosity intended here, simply a desire to make sure that the correct course of action – which may, of course, not appear until later – is followed. Your Chinese business partners will almost always prefer to have a little wiggle room because – quite sensibly – they don’t want to end up tied to one unfavourable contract when a better one might soon come along.
This is a normal part of the culture stemming from Chinese philosophy, most easily understood by foreigners when thinking about the concept of balance, yin and yang. The “all or nothing” strategy is thus not something many Chinese people would contemplate.
Final agreement and closing the deal
Concession (ràng) is something of an art form. Because of the need to save face at all times and to forbear to complain about things which are unfavourable to you, making any concessions necessary in the final deal and spotting when others are willing to do so are real challenges when negotiating in China. This is very difficult to do without a deep understanding and experience of business dealings in this part of the world. You need to be able to spot the usually far from obvious clues your potential business partner is giving you to know when to stick to your position and when to give ground so that a final agreement can be reached.
Key concepts and points
- Seniority and age are worthy of respect. Don’t be overly familiar with someone outside of your age group and remember that the word of older and senior members of team will likely have more weighting.
- Decisions can be delayed. A desire to stall on making a final commitment is a common part of decision making in China.
- Concession (ràng). Avoiding losing face while simultaneously displaying the correct forbearance means that reaching a final agreement can be difficult. To do this, you’ll need to concede in the most acceptable manner.
Business etiquette in China – an entrepreneur’s guide to concepts.Master these theoretically simple – but practically very difficult to execute – concepts and you’ll be well on your way to understanding business etiquette in China.
Have you previously conducted a lot of business in China? Is there something critical you feel we’ve missed out?
Add your comment below and we’ll add the best information to our article. Watch this space for the rest of our series on business etiquette in East Asia.