10 Chinese Business Etiquette Tips in China
In recent years, China has emerged as a highly attractive market for investment. To successfully expand your business in China, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with the nuances of Chinese business etiquette.
Understanding Chinese business culture and customs can aid in navigating business deals, fostering a positive work environment, and building a favorable reputation with your Chinese counterparts. In this article, we have collated ten essential tips on Chinese business etiquette that you should adhere to.
1. Greetings and exchanging business cards
Understanding Chinese business etiquette is crucial when attending business meetings with Chinese counterparts. Traditionally, Chinese people would greet each other with a nod or a bow, but handshaking is now commonly used for greetings in China. When introduced to a Chinese group, they may greet you with applause, so applauding and smiling are important.
Additionally, it is customary to use titles and family names when addressing a Chinese person, such as Director Li. If they introduce themselves using their full professional titles and company names, it's appropriate to follow the same rule. For instance, if Doctor John Smith, CEO of American Data Corporation, introduces himself with his full professional title and company name, you should introduce yourself as "Director Li, CEO of Alipay."
When exchanging business cards, Chinese individuals will present their cards with both hands, facing the recipient so they can read them. Remember always to give a business card to the highest-ranking individual first. After receiving a card, it's polite to comment on it, focusing on positive elements such as the logo or business name. When storing a received business card, it's appropriate to place it in a cardholder or a briefcase, but not a purse or wallet, as these are considered personal belongings.
Handing a card to a client
2. Chinese business culture dress code
Understanding and adhering to traditional Chinese business etiquette is crucial when working with Chinese business people. It also includes dressing appropriately, as dress codes can vary between cultures. Chinese tend to favor more conservative and modest style in a professional setting.
In a professional Chinese business setting, both men and women are expected to wear suits, regardless of their position. Typically, plain, dark, or neutral colors are favored, with men wearing dark suits ranging from gray to black to brown, while women should opt for muted pastel dresses that are not too short. The same color rule applies to accessories such as scarves, ties, and shoes.
Example of business professional clothing
While cuff links, necklaces, and earrings are acceptable accessories, they should be subtle and not flashy. For women, simple earrings are preferred over drop or hoop earrings, and men should remove all piercings entirely. By following these guidelines, you can demonstrate respect for Chinese culture and build stronger relationships with Chinese business partners.
3. Passing information
The majority of local Chinese companies are either family-owned or government-run and, as such, tend to operate within a hierarchical structure. This hierarchical system was influenced by thousands of years of Confucian philosophy and teaching. Though Confucianism is simply the philosophy of living, it greatly impacts business practices.
The hierarchy concept highly impacts information transmission in the same business communication context. Within a company, information flows in the direction of the hierarchical lines, which means an employee is not allowed to give a piece of information directly to the boss.
Social hierarchy in a company
Instead, the information is sent from a subordinate to his leader, who will pass it on to his boss, who will pass it on to another boss until it reaches the relevant party. When the information is returned, it follows the same path in reverse.
4. Entering and leaving business meetings
Drawing from Confucian principles on hierarchy, Chinese colleagues or businesspeople typically adhere to a certain protocol when attending meetings. Upon entering the meeting room to discuss business together, the delegation will follow a specific order based on seniority. The highest-ranking member enters first, and the subsequent members follow suit. The group's most senior member is responsible for introducing the other team members.
At the end of the meeting, all participants are expected to stand up and exchange pleasantries before leaving. The Chinese delegation will exit the room in the same order they arrived, with the head of the delegation leading the way.
5. Showing respect
Due to their emphasis on hierarchy, senior Chinese executives prefer interacting with their counterparts rather than subordinates when conducting business relations. For instance, in a first encounter with a Chinese delegation, the team leader may seek an introduction from a higher-level manager before greeting anyone else.
Chinese subordinates are often careful in their actions to avoid appearing disrespectful toward their superiors. So, it can lead to situations such as junior employees being hesitant to express their opinions during meetings until their boss speaks or seeking permission from their superior before presenting their ideas.
This cultural practice reflects the importance of respect for authority and the value placed on maintaining harmonious relationships in Chinese society.
Being on time is extremely important in China. Being late for a meeting or appointment can be seen as a sign of disrespect, lack of commitment, and unprofessionalism. For business meetings, you should always arrive early or on time.
Check the time regularly to be early or on time
It's important to plan and factor in potential delays such as traffic and transportation. If you're running late, it's best to call or text the other party to let them know.
7. Be mindful of certain gestures
Body language is an important aspect of communication in China. In addition to the points mentioned earlier, it's also important to maintain eye contact when speaking, as it is seen as a sign of honesty and respect.
Additionally, the use of hand gestures is an important part of communication. For example, giving a thumbs-up is not universally positive in China and can be seen as a vulgar gesture. It's also important to avoid pointing your finger directly at someone, as this can be interpreted as confrontational. Instead, it's better to gesture with an open palm.
Lastly, in Chinese culture, maintaining a calm and composed demeanor is highly valued, so it's important to avoid raising your voice or using aggressive body language during business meetings or negotiations.
8. Practice gift-giving
In Chinese business culture, giving gifts is not just a way to show appreciation, but it's also a way of building and strengthening relationships. Gift-giving is often seen as a symbol of respect, gratitude, and trust between a business associate, clients, and colleagues. However, it's important to know some guidelines when giving gifts in China.
First, ensure that the gift is appropriate for the occasion and the person is important. It's best to avoid giving gifts that are too expensive or lavish, as it may be seen as an attempt to bribe the recipient. Instead, giving thoughtful gifts that show consideration and respect for the recipient is better. For example, giving a gift that reflects the recipient's interests or hobbies can be a good way to build rapport.
Receiving a thank you gift
Secondly, the presentation of the gift is just as important as the gift itself. In Chinese culture, gift packaging is seen as a symbol of the giver's respect and appreciation for the recipient. Therefore, it's important to present the gift appropriately. For instance, using a high-quality gift box and adding a handwritten note can make the gift more meaningful.
Thirdly, it's important to avoid giving sharp objects such as knives or scissors, as they are considered bad luck in Chinese culture. Similarly, gifts associated with death or mourning, such as clocks or white flowers, should be avoided as they are considered inappropriate for business occasions.
It's also worth noting that gift-giving customs can vary from region to region in China. For instance, some regions give gifts during the Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival, while in others, gift-giving is more common during business negotiations or meetings. Therefore, it's important to know the local customs and practices when giving gifts in China.
9. Understanding how Chinese business relationship works
Guānxi is translated to "relationships." In the business context, it's referred to as networks or connections but with mutual obligations and goodwill to open doors for new business and facilitate deals. In China, you're considered rich if you have money and a strong and healthy network of personal relationships. Particularly in China, the ability to establish personal trust and relationships (even beyond the professional context) tremendously impacts a business's success. Thus, guānxi is often seen as a cause of corruption in the eye of Westerners. In China, however, it is a normal way of doing business.
In Chinese business culture, guānxi is important in two fields: social ties with suppliers, buyers, and other business intermediaries; and social ties with government officials at various government-regulated agencies. A good business relationship with your suppliers will lower overall transactional costs and result in a more efficient supply chain.
Consequently, your business will likely have higher profitability and sustainable growth. And your strong bonds with government officials will result in increasing knowledge about government regulations and receiving privileged access to stocks and resources.
10. Understanding the “face”
In Chinese culture, pride and reputation are highly valued.
When Chinese people talk about those qualities, they use the word 面子 or "miànzi," translated as "face." How others perceive you and the respect you command from them are very important to Chinese business. There are three concepts centered around "face": gaining face, losing face, and saving face.
面子 or "miànzi:" the concept of “face” in Chinese culture; china-mike
Simply put, "gaining face" is the prize you receive for your action, which benefits you and contributes to your whole community. In the business context, you can gain face in such situations as getting more sales contracts and successfully closing big deals.
In contrast to gaining face, when you receive criticism for any actions you've taken, you're "losing face." But you can also lose face through the actions of others, and others can lose face through yours. For example, if you make a mistake in estimating the shipping timeline, which leads to late delivery to your customers, it will devalue the image of your company. In this case, you'll lose face, and your company will suffer reputation damage.
Saving face is any action you might take to avoid losing face. For example, if you find out you've made a mistake in the shipping date, which might cause your customer to feel irritated to receive a package late, contact them to notify them about the situation. Show them that you always care about customers and that taking quick action to fix your mistakes is a way to save face.
Doing business in China may not be as hard as it seems if you have a good understanding of Chinese business culture and Chinese business etiquette commonly practiced by Chinese people. Following the tips above will create a professional and positive image for your business.
Originally published January 31st, 2022. Updated on April 27th, 2023.