No matter how many Chinese phrasebooks you’ve read on the plane, acclimating to the Chinese business environment is a tricky process. Very often, Western business travellers working in China are surprised to discover that finding their way to interpersonal success is not so much about linguistic differences, but about codes of behaviour.
Indeed, there are significant differences between western and Chinese business etiquette which can lead to cultural sensitivity and create an awkward dynamic (as well as missed business opportunities!)
Do you want to make a great impression on coworkers, potential employers and associates? Follow the Chinese business etiquette below and get ready for success.
Punctuality is the first thing Chinese people will judge you on when they meet you. At this point, you might be thinking “Oh, I can do that!”, but it turns out cities like Beijing have such terrible traffic jams that being punctual can actually be a great challenge!
And it’s not just traffic jams that will conspire against you. When booking your trip to China or even an internal flight, make sure you schedule your arrival so you can reach your destination the day before your meetings. Yes, even though Chinese people can be terribly offended by tardiness, their own airports are notorious for delays!
Assertiveness, wit, and humour may be seen as positive qualities in some countries, but if you want to impress your Chinese associates, cheekiness and overdetermination simply won’t do. Chinese business etiquette dictates that respect and politeness should come first.
So, no matter how serious a discussion gets, make sure you speak in a moderate tone, and avoid using body language that can be read as aggressive. Also, if there is a lull during the business meeting, try to be patient and look engaged. Most importantly, never interrupt a colleague to make a point. Cutting off someone who hasn’t finished expressing an idea is seen as terribly discourteous.
Chinese people just love exchanging business cards. Introducing yourself with a card is a way of letting your interlocutor know that you appreciate them and you are open to engaging in business with them. If you’re going to a work meeting, make sure you have an abundant stock of bilingual business cards and, when bestowing one to a Chinese colleague, present them with the Chinese characters facing up so the other person knows you’ve taken the trouble to introduce yourself in their language.
If they respond by presenting their own card, take it with two hands, read it with a smile, and then carefully save it into your bag or wallet. Whatever you do, avoid stuffing it in your pocket without reading it as if it was some ad handed to you on the street. This is a serious violation of Chinese business etiquette.
Business negotiations in China are very likely to involve a formal banquet dinner. If you’re a guest to one, there are a few golden rules you should stick to if you want to avoid losing face at such a crucial point of the business deal:
- 1. Respect the pre-established seating arrangement. In China, guests are normally positioned according to hierarchical order with the host or with the most important guest in the room.
- 2. Let the host or guest of honour lift their chopsticks or take the first sip from their drink before you do the same (yes, you have to use chopsticks too!). Try not to drink too much alcohol on your own accord, as you are expected to take a sip every time someone proposes a toast.
- 3. Try a piece of food from each dish that stops your way, but try not to have too much of the more expensive dishes.
- 4. Don’t take the last piece of food off a platter, and don’t leave an empty plate either — you may give the impression that you’re still hungry, which suggests your host has failed in their role.
- 5. Chinese business etiquette dictates that guests should offer to pay the bill a few times before graciously giving in and accepting their host’s generosity.
Dress for Success
Don’t be mistaken. The fact that Chinese people dress conservatively doesn’t mean that they don’t pay attention to appearance. On the contrary, wearing simple, modest, but high-quality clothes is how they indicate status and elegance.
So what is the Chinese fashion business etiquette for men and women?
If you are a man, wear a dark, traditional suit. If the meeting or dinner is very formal, you can wear a tie. Tuxedos, however, are not very common in China and should be avoided.
Women, on the other hand, are expected to wear business suits or blouses without a cleavage. For a party or a cocktail event, you can wear a long dress, but loud colours, bare backs and low necklines should be avoided. Again, the key to perfect business costume etiquette in China is modesty and simplicity.
Gaining and Losing Face
The issue of “losing face” is of utmost relevance when doing business with Chinese people. “Face” refers to people’s reputation, and it’s something you can gain or lose depending on the success of your interactions. Giving others compliments, for example, is a nice way of helping your interlocutor gain face, while gaining some yourself just by being polite and attentive. Exposing a failure on the part of a colleague, on the other hand, is more likely to result in you (rather than your colleague) losing face, as people will assume you’re critical or that you don’t know how to behave in a business meeting. Also, while self-deprecating humour is perfectly acceptable in some Western cultures, Chinese people may see this kind of behaviour as a lack of self-respect on your part, thus resulting in a loss of face on your part.
Get Ready for Language Differences
If you’re lucky, it may happen that your Chinese business partners speak English and are ready to communicate in your language (an effort that you shouldn’t take for granted). However, make sure you know in advance if you will need an interpreter or, at the very least, get a few materials such as business cards and formal documents translated into Chinese.
Of course, if you want to make a great impression on your Chinese associates, the best thing to do is take a few Chinese lessons ahead of time. This will show your colleagues that you appreciate their language and culture and that you don’t expect them to make an effort so they can communicate with you.
Luckily, that’s where we can help. At Listen & Learn, we work with native Chinese teachers who’ll be delighted to teach you their language and the codes of behaviour that you need to learn in order to blend in with the locals and succeed in the Chinese business world. Not sure whether you want to delve so deep into the Chinese language and culture? Just give it a try! Contact us now and we’ll match you with one of our tutors for a 100% free trial lesson, no strings attached!