Business Etiquette in China: 9 very useful pieces of advice

As you start or expand your business in China, having an understanding of Chinese business etiquette is important to your success. Knowing and practicing common customs will also help you relax, avoid embarrassment, and focus on the matters at hand on critical occasions. Here are 9 very useful pieces of advice to help you along your journey.

  1. Respect their business cards. The Chinese consider exchanging business cards the same way we consider a handshake. They exchange business cards the moment they greet you. People often present their business cards to you with both hands. Take them with both hands. Don't put the card away immediately. Rather, place it on the table or hold it in your hand for some time. Make an effort to look at the person's title. Take plenty of business cards with you when you go to China.

  2. Make people feel comfortable first before talking business. The Chinese enjoy small talk and pleasantries. They want to learn more about you. Therefore, initial meetings are rarely expected to produce results. Chinese salespeople routinely wine and dine prospects before they sit down to talk business. Let people feel that they are "connected" with you before you close a deal with them. In America, where we feel that the legal system is largely enforceable, we can meet strangers and sign contracts with people quite speedily and start doing business. China is a people-based rather than a law-based culture. People in China build trust by "profiling" one another. They observe one another's behavior over time before they'll do big business. This is why it takes longer to get things done there. This is also the reason why, if you bring your lawyers to China before you get to know your partner well, you may send the unintended and erroneous signal that you're trying to outsmart him.

  3. Let people save face, especially in public. An American behavior that perhaps irks the Chinese most is someone probing into their affairs. Naturally you want all the answers, since you've traveled so far to find out the truth. But the Chinese aren't accustomed to revealing much about themselves, especially in public seminars. If someone is vague about a particular issue, or unwilling or unable to give a straight answer, don't force the issue.

  4. Respect Chinese superstitions. Many Chinese people are superstitious about numbers. For example, the number 4 in Chinese rhymes with "death" or "failure." Many people try very hard not to have their house numbers or telephone numbers contain the numeral 4. The number 14 is even worse. The Chinese for 14 rhymes with "sure to fail, sure to die." Numerals 3 and 8 are "good." The numeral 3 in Chinese rhymes with "growth," while the numeral 8 rhymes with "prosperity." It's no accident that the telephone numbers of Western hotels in various Chinese cities contain the numerals 8888. They want their Chinese customers to feel good.

  5. Cultivate "guan xi". To make things happen in China, you have to know people. "Knowing" is what the Chinese mean by "guan xi" or "connections." When you cultivate "guan xi" with people, you might get them to bend over backwards for you, let alone buy into your demands and style. But if instead you show up with a legal document before people get to know you and feel comfortable with you, you won't go far or make long-lasting deals.

  6. Avoid being too casual. In America, we often call people we don't know very well by their first names. CEOs and employees may address each other as if they were on equal footing. This is not considered good manners in China. Always be formal in addressing people. That's the safe and the only right thing to do. In China, only childhood friends and spouses call each other by their first names.

  7. Don't expect much eye contact. We in America must make steady eye contact when we talk with people. This is not the case among the Chinese. For the Chinese, a lack of steady eye contact doesn't indicate a lack of attention or respect. On the contrary, because of Chinese society's more authoritarian nature, steady eye contact is viewed as inappropriate, especially when subordinates talk with their superiors. Eye contact is sometimes viewed as a gesture of challenge or defiance. When people get angry, they tend to maintain steady eye contact. Otherwise, they look elsewhere or appear nonchalant while talking.

  8. Let them smoke. There are 350 million people who smoke in China. They consume 1.8 trillion cigarettes each year, or one-third of cigarettes smoked worldwide. Many Chinese consider smoking, usually among men, the right thing to do in a business environment. They will offer you a cigarette. Simply decline and thank them. Don't lecture them on how smoking is bad for their health. If you allow them to smoke, they'll listen to you longer. The growing Chinese economy has produced so many successful business-people that they now have a craving for cigars. "Cigar bars" are all the rage in large Chinese cities and in Western-style hotels.

  9. Talk metric. Make sure that you have technical and pricing information in both English and metric units. Your customers and suppliers will appreciate and understand you better this way.