[Insights] A Pocket Guide of Business Etiquette in China


The Chinese market offers vast possibilities for businesses and that is why increasingly more companies are looking to expand into the prosperous Asian market. However, many are often daunted by the prospect of doing business in China. Therefore, in order to navigate yourself and your company in China effectively, it is crucial to be aware of and follow certain business etiquette. By gaining insight into the business culture, it prevents possible miscommunication and misunderstandings and ensures for smoother and more successful business. This article will enhance your awareness of the Chinese business culture so that you have the essential knowledge to succeed in China. 


Communication Style

While doing business in China it is valuable to know that the communication style is much more indirect than in the West, and while they prefer to be polite by not directly saying what they mean this can prove difficult to interpret. An example of such is if you are tardy for a meeting, which is regarded as a serious offense in China, they may not directly comment on your tardiness, but instead ask if you are still jetlagged. Much of understanding Chinese communication is being able to read between the lines. Since giving negative answers or opinions can be impolite, they often offer alternative responses such as ‘I will think about it’, ‘maybe’ or ‘we will see’ instead of simply saying no. It is up to you to figure out what they really mean. Further regarding communication, small talk is very important in China. Therefore, before a meeting begins it is very likely they will engage in a short conversation which is not related to business. Learning a couple of basic words in Chinese will be greatly appreciated, as well as mentioning topics such as Chinese art, sights and geography and your positive impression of China so far. In exchanging pleasantries, it is worth knowing that the questions, ‘Where have you been?’ and ‘Have you eaten?’, are equivalent to ‘How are you?’ in the West. If you are asked these questions, remember it is simply a gesture of common courtesy on their behalf, so keep your response brief and do not get caught up in the details.


Meeting Hacks

In order to have successful business encounters in China, it is worth knowing that in Chinese business culture preparation is key. When attending a business meeting, everything needs to be accounted for. Make sure you have more proposals than necessary and that the documents are only in black and white as certain colors can have subtle connotations. Ensure that you have enough business cards as they are given out much more freely than in the West and to not have enough would be insulting. On the business card, it is expected that you will have one side of the card correctly translated into simplified Chinese including a Chinese phone number and WeChat name. When giving out your business card, present it with two hands with the side in Chinese facing the other person. When receiving a business card, take it with two hands and carefully study it, even if it is not in English and you may not understand it. It is still important to thoroughly look at it. Business cards are to be treated with great respect so should be stored in a safe place like a briefcase or cardholder, not just to be stuffed in a back pocket, as to not cause offense. For the meeting itself Chinese employees usually enter the conference room in hierarchical order, therefore also be aware of the order you enter as they will assume that the first of your company to enter is your main delegator. In China bowing or nodding is typical although it is also becoming more common practice to shake hands. You should, however, wait for them to initiate it and match their practice. Generally speaking, handshakes are much softer and shorter than in the West. On introduction the Chinese counterpart will usually say their company name followed by their title, surname and first name. It is best to mimic their example when introducing yourself. It is vital that during the meeting you remain calm, composed and collected. Showing an overexertion of emotions could be unfavorable. Finally, do not expect the meeting to conclude with a deal straight away. The Chinese tend to want to have consensus before agreeing to something which takes time, so relax and wait for them to come to you.


The Art of Negotiation

A significant difference between Chinese and Western business etiquette that is important to recognize is in the art of negotiation. While in Western business culture, time is money, and emphasis is put on sealing a deal as quickly as possible, this is not the case in China. In China the time taken for discussions are of much less concern, rather it is more important that all factors are carefully considered, and a good relationship has been established before making a deal. This can take several face-to-face meetings and long negotiations meaning that deadlines can be surpassed, however, you should simply accept these delays. In making decisions it is normal for Chinese employees to seek advice from those higher in the hierarchy before deciding, therefore, if you put them under pressure and do not allow time for proper deliberation it is likely to backfire and make the Chinese company politely decline in working with you. Keep patient and it will be well-received.


“Guanxi”: Beyond Business

As mentioned, in China much more emphasis is put on creating a solid and lasting relationship. They want to think of you not just as an associate but also a friend. It is unthinkable to do business with someone you do not know, so it is common that they will try to get to know you. In doing so they may ask personal questions such as asking about your family, personal life, or other information, which may seem inappropriate in a Western business setting. However, this is because in China the professional and personal spheres overlap. For them to do business with you, they must know and trust you. To build personal relationships or ‘guanxi’, you will most likely be invited out for dinner, drinks or some sort of activity, it is very important that you attend as forming a bond is essential in making business possible. While in Western culture this opportunity would be used to discuss business affairs, it is highly unlikely that business will be mentioned. Instead the aim of such activities are to make the associate feel welcome and respected and to strengthen relationships.


Success through Open-Mindedness

If you are serious about doing business in China you need to be patient, prepared and above all else open-minded to a different culture. And while the Chinese do not expect foreigners to be completely familiar with all their customs and traditions, having a basic knowledge of the business etiquette will impress your Chinese counterparts. Your commitment to building a strong and successful relationship will be demonstrated and be an important step to building a mutually prosperous connection.