When working in China — or in any other country outside of your own for that matter, it is important to be able to be culturally aware in the workplace to enhance communication, productivity and unity in the workplace.
“At a very basic level, culturally appropriate communication and nonverbal business etiquette are essential to success in running international teams or engaging in negotiations with foreign firms.”
Being able to work & interact with colleagues from other cultures according to their culture’s business ethics is an asset that will take you far in your career, as well as your personal relationships with them. In today’s post, we’ll be covering some of the basic Chinese business etiquettes you should follow.
“Face” (面子 miàn zi) is an important concept in China, and is a psychosocial construct that is formed and expressed in interpersonal interactions. “Face” is generally a representation of one’s self-esteem, self-image, and dignity. Thus, giving “face” usually means ensuring what you say and what you do takes into consideration of others’ self-esteem and dignity.
The concept of “face” is very cultural and unique to China, and has varied nuances in different contexts.
It is common to see Chinese businessmen choosing "face" over profits in business negotiations. This can possibly explain why some mutually beneficial business deals fall through. Therefore, to ensure successful business dealings, it is important to give “face“ and preserve overall harmony during business meetings and discussions. Giving “face” will mean not being too direct and frank, as well as not having direct disagreements nor raising direct questions in a large group setting. Lastly, try to avoid saying negative words such as "no" directly; instead use alternatives such as "I'll need some time to think about it" or "I'll get back to you" instead of flat out shutting the other person out.
Being aware of these cultural nuance, and being respectful and polite to your counterparts will allow you to have smoother negotiations and transactions.
When having casual conversations, avoid sensitive topics such as politics, Taiwan, human rights, etc, but instead acknowledge on other fields such as arts, sports, music, history, culture, etc.
During the first meeting, your Chinese counterparts might not dive straight into business discussions immediately. It may not be uncommon for the first meeting with them to be outside of a meeting room, over a meal table. Small talk and personal conversations will be initiated, and this is their way of knowing who you are as a person, and whether you are trustworthy enough to be doing business with.
When carrying out these small talk, it’s also important to take note of addressing people by their proper titles, followed by their surname. When addressing your superiors, using 您 instead of 你. Once you are more acquainted with them, you can try to forge closer relationships with them by addressing them using (surname)哥 or (surname)姐 [directly translates to “brother" and "sister"]. For example, if their surname is 刘 liú, you can call them 刘哥 or 刘姐, depending on the person's gender.
The Chinese have a high respect for authority and they enter the room in hierarchical order, with the most senior going first. In Chinese culture, elders are seen as a source of wisdom and spirituality, and disrespecting them can be considered offensive. While this is mainly known within in a family context, it also applies to the workplace. Be sure to respect your elders - work or not!
Doing business in China, just like in the West, includes giving business cards, and you might wonder how the Chinese would exchange business cards.
The Chinese always use both hands to present their cards, and always to the highest-ranking individual first; make sure to follow this order. Look at received cards politely before saving them in a professional location (like a briefcase, but never a purse or wallet). Also, you can make your business card bilingual to show respect to your Chinese counterparts, with your professional title clearly stated.
As with any other meetings, when attending meetings with your Chinese counterparts, it is important to be punctual, or arrive early. Punctuality in any business situation is important, and even more so in Chinese business culture. Being late is considered offensive and rude, so give yourself ample time to arrive at the meeting. If you run into problems, you’ll be thankful for the time cushion.
In addition, you should also prepare materials needed and communicate specific requirements for the meeting (projector and screen) to your hosts in advance.
It is customary to note that some Chinese meetings tend to start slightly later, as the Chinese would usually prefer to build relationship with guests through informal introductions and greetings, as well as welcome gestures such as making tea for guests, before going into business negotiations.
The Chinese don’t use their hands to speak, so instead of pointing with an index finger, use an open palm. Never put your hand in your mouth — it’s a rude gesture. The Chinese also dislike body contact such as back slaps or arm touching, and often consider noises like clicking your fingers, whistling, and even blowing your nose with a handkerchief you then put back in your pocket to be impolite.
You should also take note to keep your composure at all times, even if you get upset or excited about a situation. It’s also important to maintain proper body posture throughout the business dealings. For example, in addition to the impolite hand gestures mentioned above, avoid slouching or putting your feet on the table.
Gift-giving is a tricky topic according to Chinese business etiquette. Government officials will consider the giving of gifts to be bribery, which is not only considered disrespectful, but is also downright illegal in many cases. However, in the business world, gift-giving policies are becoming more lax; as such, a gift can be welcomed as a sign of goodwill towards building a business relationship. Do some research and find out if gifts would be appropriate or offensive to your particular Chinese counterparts before you make any purchases
At the core of it all, while you should be minding proper business etiquette, using your own intuition of what’s generally respectful will help you navigate business dealings well in China.