Are you planning to do business in China? Chances are that one step out of the Shanghai airport will have you shouting, “We’re not in Scranton anymore, Bob!” Adjusting to the hectic pace of Chinese urban centers is not the only challenge that lies ahead. Learning the nuances of Chinese business culture is a beast of its own. Before your plane touches down, review our 12 tips (+ 3 bonus tips) for mastering Chinese business etiquette so you can save face (see item #7) and increase your chances of success.
First impressions are everything, and an appropriate handshake is key to setting the tone of a meeting. Use a firm but gentle handshake when introducing yourself to someone of Asian culture. Too strong of a handshake could make you appear aggressive.
In the West, business cards are prolific, yet casual. In China, the exchanging of business cards is a grander gesture. Present and receive business cards using both hands. Order special cards for your trip: one side printed in English and the other printed in Chinese. Doing so will show your Chinese hosts that you respect their culture and will provide a smooth start to building a relationship.
Being punctual is a must, but once you're in a meeting, don't rush things. Focus on building trust rather than making a deal. This can be a difficult adjustment for Westerners to make, as we view time as linear and have that "every second counts" mentality. While the Chinese also assign value to time (and to a greater extent than many Asian countries), they operate within a more cyclical concept of time – taking time to build a relationship, reflect on opportunities and make a decision when the time is right.
The Western way of addressing trust is simply to give it until we have a reason not to (sort of like innocent until proven guilty). The Eastern way is to not trust until there is substantial evidence that a person can be trusted (guilty until proven innocent). Personal connections are crucial, so work hard to earn trust and prove that you are committed to forging long-term relationships. In Chinese culture, guanxi is the means to all business ends.
Building trust, finding the right business partner, establishing yourself and your reputation, and developing relationships all take time. Note that it is extremely unlikely that a major deal will be made during your initial meeting. You must earn trust first. Bringing a lawyer along to your initial meeting with a potential partner would be a major faux pas, as this would give the wrong impression and cast doubt on your trustworthiness. It is common to meet with middle management who then report back to the decision makers. Once a decision is made, it will be reported back to you. Be patient during this process!
Be cautious, as some people may try to take advantage of you, you silly American. This is absolutely not the case across the board, but don’t be so quick to trust. Take a cue from the Chinese approach to trust and feel a person out before jumping into a deal or signing a contract. If there is a language barrier, hire a trustworthy translator to help in negotiations. China’s legal system is not as strong as the US and will not always be able to protect you from shifty business deals, so look out for yourself.
The Chinese don’t like to ask questions in public, ask you to repeat yourself, or answer personal or prying questions on the spot in a public setting. Don’t pressure them for answers if you sense hesitation. This can be challenging when you need answers. Be patient and only ask tough questions in one-on-one interactions rather than in more public settings. Chinese people don’t want to make promises they may break because then they would be losing face. Focus on discussions rather than blunt yes/no questions.
Americans have a reputation for being loud and talking fast – be conscious of this! Slow down, mirror the volume of your hosts, avoid English colloquialisms, and reference data and currencies in the units of measure with which your hosts are most familiar. This effort will be appreciated.
There are a few gestures to avoid while in China, including showing the soles of your shoes (be careful while crossing your legs) and pointing with your index finger. Both are considered rude. Refrain from fidgeting, whistling or snapping your fingers. Mimic the posture and body language of your hosts. While making eye contact is good, don’t initiate a staring contest. In Chinese culture, eye contact is typically briefly held.
Even if you don’t believe in superstitions, be respectful of Chinese superstitions and try to operate within a few rules. The main superstitions are associated with numbers and colors. For example, the number 4 is considered unlucky, while the number 8 is very lucky. The color red is a preferred color, while white represents mourning. Avoid wearing a white dress to a dinner outing, for instance.
Don’t take “Yes” too literally. It is sometimes used in Chinese conversation as an acknowledgement that the person understands what you are saying, rather than an affirmative to move forward with a deal. Pauses and brief periods of silence are normal and considered thoughtful, so don’t get uncomfortable.
Take note of Chinese holidays. While most American holidays are a single day, some Chinese holidays last one week or more! Plan your trips and meetings around major holidays like Chinese New Year (CNY), which falls in January or February (changes year to year based on the lunar calendar). Business shuts down during the two weeks of Chinese New Year. Literally nothing happens! Another significant holiday is Golden Week, which takes place in early October. If you will be in China leading up to CNY or Golden Week, bring appropriate gifts to meetings. Your gesture will go a long way.
Need more advice in preparation for your business meeting in China?
Download our 3 bonus tips below!