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A guide to business etiquette in China

by Adam Gilbourne

With Chinese business representing an increasingly large, if not dominant, portion of the world’s trade, it is necessary that business travellers learn the appropriate etiquette before conducting business in China.

As is the case with doing business in any foreign country, it is wise to learn about the culture beforehand. The Chinese culture is deeply focused on family, trust, and respect. Understanding this and keeping it in mind during all interactions, both personal and business, will hold you in good stead. This article will touch on some of the most important elements of business etiquette in China.

Be on time

Punctuality is a very important factor in China. Turning up to a business meeting late shows disrespect, and will dramatically impact on your credibility and likelihood of earning the trust of others.

Dress appropriately

Corporate attire in China is generally conservative. Revealing clothing is frowned upon, and men should wear plain suits with understated ties, while women should wear flat shoes and blouses with high collars that cover their necks

Greetings

When greeting your Chinese counterparts, bowing or nodding is customary. While handshakes have become increasingly common in modern times, it’s better to play this by ear and wait for them to extend a hand for a shake first.

When addressing someone, it is customary to use their professional title followed by their surname, for example: “Director Chen”. Remember that traditionally, Chinese names place the surname before the first name. Do not address someone by their first name unless you are invited to do so.

If you’re being introduced to a crowd, they will applaud you, and unlike in Western culture, it is expected that you will applaud in return.

Business cards

Business cards are a must in China. Ensure you have plenty to hand around, and when you give them out, use two hands and give a bow. Similarly, when accepting a business card, use both hands to accept the card and give a bow. Your Chinese counterparts will also expect that you take a second to read the card before putting it in your pocket. This shows respect and a level of interest.

If you want to go the extra mile, consider printing Chinese translations on your cards and using gold ink, which is a symbol of financial wisdom in China.

Getting down to business

When talking shop or negotiating business deals, prepare for a lengthy process. Trust must be earned and the Chinese love to negotiate, so factor this into your strategy and always be patient as deadlines are rarely met.

Before discussing business, small talk is expected. It’s important to ensure you maintain a calm disposition and only discuss positive topics. When speaking, always maintain composure and, regardless of how excited you may be, don’t use your hands to gesture too much. It is also considered very rude to interrupt or interject while another person is speaking.

It is worth noting that both Chinese society and business are very hierarchical. As a result, the most senior person is expected to enter the room first and will lead the meeting.

Entertaining

The Chinese are welcoming hosts, so accept their invitations with gratitude. It is also expected that you will reciprocate by hosting them at the end of your visit.

When dining or entertaining, never discuss business. Mealtime is a way to informally gain trust and build credibility in business. When eating the various courses that you will inevitably be served, always leave some food on the plate as an indication of gratitude to the host. An empty plate indicates that the guest was not given enough food, and this reflects badly on your host.

Finally, don’t tip at restaurants as this is considered insulting in the Chinese culture.

A lot of what is considered business etiquette may be thought of as simple common sense, but it is important to always be respectful of the Chinese culture. Think of your business dealings as an exercise in either gaining or losing face. The Chinese value saving face, and you should always conduct yourself in a manner that is likely to gain you face, and as a result, their trust and respect in business. If you remain calm, patient, and polite at all times – despite the circumstances – you should be just fine.


Adam Gilbourne is the founder of Easy Imex Ltd and helps importers to source product & manage their supply chain in China. He writes advice for importers on the Easy Imex blog. He lives full time in Shanghai, China. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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