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Business Etiquette in China

Business etiquette in China! Essential or nonsense?

The Chinese self-confidence and individual identity appreciation are increasing in China. These notions are also becoming more noticeable in the business environment. If one has dealt with the Chinese cultural history and, even better, can speak a word or two in Chinese, it often flatters their Chinese business partners a great deal.

The meeting, the obligatory business lunch, as well as the workday, can be very unfamiliar in China, thus we are happy to advise you beforehand! Many things, especially small details, have to be carefully considered in China so that your business endeavors can stand under a good “Chinese star”.

The first meeting with the business partner
At a meeting with a Chinese business partner, there is a lot to keep in mind, and a foundation of trust must be built that will form the basis of the relationship. Do not bow down, as it is not common among business people in China; a handshake is considered appropriate as a standard greeting. As in France or Switzerland, no kisses or hugs will be exchanged in China. Small talk is the be-all and end-all. Ask about the children of the other person, talk about your own positive experiences or travels in China. The small talk then usually leads directly to the exchange of business cards. The procedure of the exchange is also different than the western countries. It is advisable to rehearse the Chinese way in advance to avoid embarrassment.

You have to be aware that in China, it can be quite common for employees to “burst” into sessions, leave the meeting or receive a phone call. This behavior is often considered as a testament to the importance of a person. The meetings can then seem, by our standards, very restless. The meetings can also be quite lengthy, and certain things such as the PowerPoint presentations may appear unusually long and unstructured for us. While people in Europe tend to work with visuals and keywords in PPTs, the Chinese prefer a lot of text.

Much in China is about the middle person (中介人 zhongjianrén), i.e. an agent, a mediator, or similar, who builds the bridge between you and someone. In China, this position should never be overruled, doing so may drastically affect the relations with the Chinese side in a negative way as the middle person often has a great deal of influence.

It is also important to find out who the decision maker is. It is common in a meeting that the person sitting in front of you has no authoritative powers. Your counterpart might just have the task of passing the meeting information to the upper levels within the company and a decision may not be made during the meeting or on the same day as you may expect. In situations as such, it is important to be patient and not to push, as in China, this behavior is not welcome.

These cultural and business points are crucial to know as they are fundamentally different from our norms. They may have make or break effects on certain business dealings. Therefore, we are happy to advise you on this essential topic and share our many years of experience.

Mianzi (loss of face)
The potential loss of face is a constant fear for the Chinese. A business partner losing their face would certainly mean the end of the business relationships. To avoid this, one has to know certain rules, as many factors, behaviors and situations can lead to a possible loss of face.

Whether it is to a business lunch or a private visit, you should never show up empty-handed. The choice of gift should also be well considered. A basket full of mangoes and apples is gladly accepted as a gift, but pears are a taboo. Where does this belief come from? It has to do with the Chinese language and the deep-rooted culture. In addition, Chinese culture believes that colors and numbers influence life directly by bringing good or bad luck.

Business dinner
It is said that food is the heart of a culture and this is especially true for China. The choice of a suitable restaurant for a business lunch should not be left to chance. Besides, you should reserve a table in a private room, as it enhances the atmosphere. The food order is considered as a tool to impress others, so order plenty of expensive dishes. Rice should be served at the very end and the foreign guest should be able to use chopsticks.

Who sits where at the table plays a huge role. The tables are often round so that the hierarchical position of each person is clear. The guest of honor should sit in a way that is facing the front door. If you sit with your back facing the door, you’ve got the “worst” seat at the table. If you are uncertain as a guest, where your place is, then you should ask the host directly.

Toasting and alcohol
The host starts the dinner with a small speech and a toast to all. During the meal, the host will also toast each guest separately. While toasting, respect is shown by holding the glass lower compared to the other person. For Westerners these are only trivialities, however it will make a big impression on the Chinese counterpart. If you cannot or do not want to drink alcohol, then you should kindly point it out at the beginning of the evening. You need to justify it, and one excuse always works: “You have to take medicine that interacts with alcohol”. That would be both understandable and acceptable by the host.

Behavior at the table
There are a few Chinese table manners to watch out for in order not to insult or embarrass the Chinese host. Some habits such as burping, slurping and bone spitting are still prevalent in some parts of China and are not considered rude. Noisy eating and sound gestures are part of eating in China. They express the enjoyment of the experience and well-being. For Westerners, a lot of faux pas are waiting at the business dinners in China. We prepare you for the perfect business event that is enjoyable without surprises and will help you build solid relations.