A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Business Etiquette

A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Business Etiquette
Jun 08, 2018 By Eddy O’Neil , eChinacities.com

There are fantastic opportunities for foreigners looking to do business in China, yet to access and make the most of the undoubted potential, it’s important to have a basic understanding of Chinese business etiquette, otherwise you could fall foul at the first hurdle. Below is your comprehensive guide to business etiquette in China.

Photo: Geoffrey Franklin

The first meeting
No matter where you are in the world, first impressions matter. So when you’re meeting a potential Chinese business partner or customer, it’s important to make the right moves.

The first thing that usually happens when entering a professional meeting in China is the exchanging of business cards. Even though WeChat has the potential to make this ritual obsolete, the exchanging of physical business cards is still an important part of doing business in China.

The business card is considered to be an extension of the person, so it should be received gratefully and treated with respect. Be sure to take it with both hands, show that you have read it, and lay the card before you on the table during the meeting. It goes without saying that you must remember to pick it up and store it somewhere safe when you’re done.

When it comes to shaking hands, it’s wiser to wait for your Chinese counterpart to initiate, as a slight bow and the clasping of hands is more common in China. You should also be prepared for a softer and gentler grip if a handshake occurs. This is because a firm handshake coupled with prolonged eye contact can be perceived as a challenge in China.

The business banquet
If you managed to survive the first meeting and the business relationship has continued to the next stage, you can expect to be invited to a business banquet (or at least a lunch) by your Chinese counterpart. While on the face of it the dinner may look like a time of joy and merriment, there is in fact a lot at play in terms of following Chinese business etiquette.

A special emphasis is placed on where one is seated at a business dinner in China. Those unfamiliar with all the ins and outs should not worry about trying to memorize them. As a guest at a business dinner, you can be expected to be seated by your host. The wisest advice is to wait to be seated to ensure you do not inadvertently cause offense.

The same consideration should be applied when the meal is served. Seniority plays a central role in Chinese culture, and there is a rank to follow when it comes to starting to eat. Be on the safe side and wait for others to dig in before you start your meal.

Additionally, there are a couple of simple social faux pas to avoid. Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in your food as this is only done at funerals and considered extremely bad luck. You should also avoid tapping your chopsticks against your bowl as this is associated with begging.

You should expect to engage in small talk throughout the entire meal, only shifting to mention business at the end, if at all. Perhaps the most important part of business etiquette in China is building trust, otherwise known as guanxi. This is achieved by the relevant parties getting to know each other through conversations that are not obviously connected to the business at hand.

When it comes to the end of the meal, there are two things to note. The first is that it’s important to not finish all the food on your plate. This can be construed as meaning your host did not order enough food. Secondly, if you were invited to dinner then your host will settle the bill. To offer to pay or to split the bill could lead to some social awkwardness.

Giving and receiving gifts
It’s not uncommon for gifts to be exchanged during the course of a business relationship in China. While it can be a good way to cement a relationship, gift giving is a minefield of Chinese business etiquette.

Some gifts come with unwanted negative connotations. In Western culture, a watch or a clock would be seen as a good gift. In Chinese culture, however, this is a big no-no. In Mandarin, “give a clock” is pronounced in exactly the same way as “attend a funeral”. The last thing you want to do when giving a gift is to remind your Chinese counterpart of death. Stick to safe gifts like alcohol and fruit.

When receiving a gift, don’t open it in front of those who gave it to you. It is considered rude unless you are explicitly told to open it at that time.

Negotiating a deal
If you’ve come this far in your China business dealings, it’s likely you will soon face some serious negotiations. For many people doing business in China, this is the most frustrating part of the experience.

Patience is key. Chinese business negotiations tend to go slowly, so try not to rush your counterparts.

Equally, you should not expect to get straight answers. Questions that you expect to be answered with a yes/no or a set figure can often be met with a very roundabout response. This stems partially from the fact that in Chinese culture it is more socially awkward to give a hard no or an especially negative answer. Rather than call people out in such situations, the best tactic is to privately note their response and take their meaning to be in the negative.

Any other tips on business etiquette in China? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Keywords: Chinese business etiquette business etiquette in China


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Oct 24, 2018 14:18 Report Abuse