Chinese business practices, culture and etiquette can be challenging for Westerners to navigate. Here are some tips to remember when doing business with Chinese partners.
Conducting business in Asia’s largest country requires preparedness, especially for Americans who are making their first attempt to do so. Successful dealings and solid working relationships can be built in China through cultural awareness and familiarity with the country’s business decorum.
“Giving Face” and “Losing Face”
Be aware of seniority in your interactions, as well as in introductions, seating during business meetings and social functions, and in conversation. Giving due respect by honoring titles, age and length of service (aka “giving face”) is important to the Chinese and a critical part of the culture.
Equally, the Chinese hate to suffer any loss of respect (aka “losing face”), which happens when titles, age and length of service are ignored, purposefully or otherwise. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
In Business Meetings
As is the case in many societies outside the United States, Chinese business culture is geared toward formal presentation. Conservative business attire; dark, tailored suits, pants and skirts are all appropriate. Stick with classic styles and clean lines. Avoid anything overly flashy or casual.
Interpersonal communication is also formal, with the use of titles important during all introductions. Bowing as a greeting is common courtesy. Your Chinese counterpart may extend a hand for a handshake as well, which you should accept. Avoid overly demonstrative hand gestures or pointing, as this can be perceived as threatening.
Give and receive business cards, brochures and marketing collateral with two hands. Ensure that all items are distributed with the idea of “giving face” and handed out to face the receiving party.
Punctuality is very important to the Chinese, so avoid being late.
Giving gifts to your Chinese host is appreciated. You should also expect to receive gifts in return. This custom often plays an important role in your future business relationship because trust and allegiance are often equated with the size and variety of the gift.
Also, senior executives and associates should receive gifts of a higher value (real or perceived) than their subordinates. File this recommendation under “giving face.”
Avoid giving straw sandals, handkerchiefs or anything wrapped in black, white or blue, as these all have connotations of death and funerals. Finally, avoid gifting clocks of any kind, as the Chinese word for clock is pronounced the same as the word for “end.”
Lunch, Dinner and Post-Dining Entertainment
Business talk often happens at a formal Chinese business meal, usually at dinner. A prebusiness meal at lunchtime is also common, with most Chinese executives dodging any business discussions beforehand.
Expect a complicated seating arrangement (by seniority — more “giving face”) for any Chinese business meal, hosted in a private room at a restaurant chosen by the host.
Formal business dinners in China can be lengthy with unique customs. These include lively social discussions, karaoke, “drinking contests” and (in some rare instances) retiring to a night club or sauna. Be prepared for several hours of communal activity to accompany your meal.
Don’t attempt to “split the bill” with your Chinese counterparts, as it is considered insulting. In China, the cultural norm is for the host to pick up the tab. You will be expected to do the same when your counterparts visit you in the United States.
A Note on Alcohol
Drinking during meals is socially acceptable in Chinese culture, especially in Northern and Western China. Expect service of alcoholic beverages including red wine, beer and Chinese wine, which is a favorite and seriously potent, up to 120 proof (60 percent alcohol by volume)!
Unless you have a medical reason, you will be expected to partake in consumption. It is considered ill-mannered not to, so by all means pace yourself.
Lastly, some conversational topics are considered rude or taboo by the Chinese and should be avoided at all costs:
• Do not admire the city of Beijing in front of Shanghai residents or vice versa.
• Do not refer to Taiwan (or at least avoid addressing it as an independent state/country).
• Do not discuss the Dalai Lama or attempts by Tibet to be recognized as an independent state/country. Related to this, avoid conversations about religion whenever possible.
• Do not praise Japanese friends or business associates.
• Do not delve into Chinese political figures or debate, especially as it relates to social conflict.
• Avoid the 1989 pro-democracy/human rights protests in Tiananmen Square, the country’s Internet censorship policies and Google’s objections to those policies.
Any unwelcome or uninvited discussion might be perceived as an attempt at political persuasion.