Business Etiquette in China
Preparing you for a successful experience in China – understanding the culture is critical.
China’s business culture and etiquette is very much different from Western business practice. If you intend to travel to China for business purposes, it is good advice if you can learn some basic Chinese business culture before making the trip. Knowing and practicing common customs will also help you relax, avoid embarrassment, and focus on the matters at hand. In your business dealings in China, you will make many friends, both Chinese and foreign, who can help you learn the ropes. Follow their advice and example! The toughest business people you encounter will often also prove to be genuinely warm and accommodating hosts, and will overlook simple errors of table manners or business etiquette, if your purposes are serious and your conduct respectful.
Before beginning, recognize that the following qualities are valued by the Chinese and therefore relevant to your Chinese business interactions today:
- Saving and giving face
- Respect for elders and rankings (note that the latter is particularly important when dealing with government officials)
Approaching Business in China
Top tip: Business in China relies heavily on personal relationship make sure you have some!
Doing research on the market is important in China, but personal relationships are equally essential to business success here. It is crucial to establish and maintain good relationships with key business contacts and relevant government officials. Attending industry networking events, contacting industry associations and municipal or provincial investment promotion bodies, and following up on personal introductions are all good ways to start the relationship-building process.
While many companies have done business successfully with credible firms in China, it is important to remain aware of potential scams that you may encounter as you approach business in China. Contact us if you are unsure.
Attending and Conducting Meetings
Top tip: Don’t be late, and know who’s boss!
In general, meetings in China follow the same format, albeit with a bit more formal ritual. The Chinese value punctuality, so arrive on time or even slightly early for meetings or other occasions. The following points should be kept in mind:
Dates: Check the Chinese calendar. If you are scheduling a meeting, avoid all national holidays, especially Chinese New Year.
Preparation: Be well prepared in advance of your meetings. Chinese businesses often meet with numerous foreign businesses seeking to establish relationships; if you are unable to capture their attention at the first meeting, you may not be able to secure follow-up.
Language of the meeting: Make sure you know the language capabilities of your hosts before the meeting. It is more convenient and reliable for you to have your own interpretation if your hosts don’t speak English or have little English capability.
Meeting room set-up: If you have specific requirements for a meeting room set-up (e.g. projector and screen), be sure to communicate this to your hosts in advance of the meeting. They are usually happy to accommodate
Materials: Have Chinese-language materials (e.g. brochures, presentations) about your company to share with your hosts. While your contact in the organization may speak perfect English, the decision makers in the company may not.
Dress Code: Government officials and top management dress formally for meetings, while business people at working levels may adopt a more casual style. If you’re not sure, go formal.
Introductions: Addressing others: Seniority is valued in China. It is important to address your counterparts by their title (Chairman, Director, etc.). Find out who the most senior person in the room is, and address them first.
Introducing yourself: Say your name clearly, and remember to state both the company you work for and your position. As a point of reference, know that Chinese will refer to their company first, then their title, and then their name when introducing themselves to others.
Giving/Receiving business cards: Hand out business cards to the most senior official first. Chinese use both hands when giving and receiving anything of value, including gifts and particularly business cards; you should do the same as this is one of the first points at which you will make an impression. Have your own cards translated into Chinese on one side. Your title is important; this is how your hosts will determine who should be invited to meetings.
Seating Arrangements: The host will take the lead, and you will likely have a name card or designated seat based on your role in the organization.
Meeting structure: Particularly in government circles, meetings may follow a fairly formal structure, with the senior member of the hosting party introducing himself/herself and colleagues, and then proceeding to state his or her views and position on the matter in question.
Top tip: Follow the leader!
Business often gets conducted during meals. As with business meetings, food and seating are determined by the hosts. The following points should be kept in mind when dining formally with the Chinese:
Beginning to eat: Follow cues from your hosts and start eating when the hosts begin.
Keeping pace: At formal banquets and high-end restaurants, serving staff may keep up an almost constant rotation of dishes. They will also change your plate frequently with a clean one, so as not to mix dishes and flavours. While at first this may be distracting, accept the rhythm and you will soon cease to notice it.
Refusing food: The Chinese tend to offer a lot of food, and it is acceptable to refuse food if you have dietary restrictions or allergies. However, it is a sign of politeness to accept some of everything, and sample (even a little of) all dishes served. But don’t eat or drink all of something you don’t like, since this may be taken as a sign that you want more!
Drinking: While local wine can be preferred at banquets, the Chinese more frequently offer strong distilled alcohol called baijiu or maotai (a very special type of baijiu) for toasts – and there may be many toasts during a meal. Never drink from the toasting glass except during a toast – and don’t let the size of the glass fool you as to the power of the contents! If you cannot or do not drink for medical or personal reasons, this is respected but you should advise your host at the beginning of the banquet, or even beforehand.
Toasting: Your host will start off the banquet with a toast to your presence / friendship/ cooperation / getting to know each other / clinching a deal. You may choose to reciprocate, toast for toast, or to wait until the host. When toasting, the Chinese normally say gan bei, which translates to “bottoms up”. Note that drinking is sometimes expected as proof of a close relationship where partners can reveal their true selves, even in a business context.
Note: There are great differences in dining and toasting customs among different regions in China. When in doubt, ask your host.
Conversation: The banquet is generally a social event in a formal context. Discussion will likely centre around pleasantries, background information on the region or the company, but it is not a time for negotiating or challenges.
Paying the bill: The host pays. If you are hosting a meal, do not show money in front of your guests.
Hosting the banquet: It is not common business practice to be expected to host a banquet at the conclusion of a deal.
Concluding: There is little lingering at banquets. Formal dinners often end suddenly, when the senior member of the hosting party stands up (quickly followed by staff and subordinates), briefly thanks the guests for attending, and proceeds to leave the room. Gifts are usually offered at the conclusion of the banquet, prior to departure.
Top tip: Buy British!!
Gift giving is a common Chinese custom that business visitors to China should prepare for and use to advantage. The advice of a Chinese friend or colleague is invaluable in doing this properly, but here are some simple guidelines:
Who: Typically, a single large group gift is presented to the chief person or leader of a Chinese organization from the lead of your business.
What: Gifts should not be too expensive. The gifts you receive will often have strong local associations that are a matter of real meaning (local identity) and therefore pride to the giver. The best gifts to offer in return will be items that are unique to Briton or your regional area.
When: Gifts are usually given at the end of an introductory meeting or at a banquet.
How: Always give and receive gifts or anything of value with two hands.
What Not to Give: Gifts to avoid include clocks and scissors or other sharp items such as knives or letter openers. Avoid wrapping gifts in white or black, which are colours associated with funerals.
China is well and truly open for business, but there is a lot more to achieving long-term success than simply finding a partner and striking a deal. Understanding the business rules and cultural sensitivities in different industries can make or break relationships – so be prepared. Click here to find out about our cultural workshop.