Chinese culture is generally respectful of hierarchy and business structures reflect this. The system usually works from the top down, with key decisions made by individuals in positions of authority. Respect for age and position is very important. Often employees wait until their manager has given an opinion before expressing their own, and generally they follow the lead of their superior. For an employee to disagree with their boss, they must be tactful and construct a really persuasive argument.
Typically the Chinese are modest and don’t like to exaggerate their abilities, so management can seem muted compared to some countries. People do not like to lose face and managers will try to avoid embarrassing an employee by disagreeing with them in front of others. Business dealings are characterised by a quiet and respectful tone of voice, and it is unusual for people to express a directly negative response – with most preferring to defer a decision than give an outright ‘no’. Workers in China are characteristically dedicated and hard-working, even when engaged in menial tasks.
Chinese society is extremely formal and has various cultural nuances that can make people appear quite detached or self-conscious at first. Rather than being a sign of shyness, lowering the eyes signifies respect while direct eye contact may be considered too personal. You should also keep hand gestures to a minimum and avoid physical contact such as backslapping or hugging. Clicking fingers and whistling are also considered rude.
An essential skill when doing business in China is the ability to develop rapport and build relationships with Chinese associates. Developing a good knowledge of business culture and etiquette will help with this. Even when people are quite well acquainted, business dealings tend to remain quite formal with few exceptions. One curious reverse of this is the tendency to ask quite personal questions early on in a relationship. Don’t be surprised if you are asked about your marital status, earnings or even your age, but if you are not comfortable answering just politely move the conversation on.
the Great Wall of China measures over 13,000 miles in total –
7,500 miles more than previously thought!
Conservative, modest clothing should be worn in business environments in China. Women should wear dresses or suits, avoiding low-cut tops, high heels, backless dresses and excessive jewellery. Makeup should also be conservative and natural-looking. Men should wear suits and ties, unless invited to be more casual in summer, when open-neck shirts or polo tops may be worn with smart trousers. Avoid bright colours and flashy accessories as they are considered pretentious.
In business, people are normally addressed by their title or position followed by their family name, for example ‘Director Li’, ‘Mayor Wang’, or ‘Ms Chen’. In China, family names are usually written first with the given name afterwards. Traditionally Chinese people greet each other with a bow or a nod, but shaking hands has become more commonplace and is probably expected in international business dealings. Try to greet the eldest and most senior people present first, then work down the hierarchy.
Punctuality is of vital importance as being late is considered extremely rude. Failure to attend an arranged meeting could cause real damage to a relationship. Meetings will begin on time, regardless of whether people are missing. Most meetings are formally scheduled well ahead of time and it can be useful to draw up an agenda and distribute it beforehand too.
Preparation is important for business meetings in China as figures and claims will always be investigated. Ensure you know who the leader is in the group you are meeting, and remember that they will assume the first person from your delegation to enter the room is in charge.
Business cards are absolutely essential in China and are always exchanged in meetings. Ideally, have one side of your card printed in Chinese and one in your own language. You should use both hands when offering or receiving a business card. When given a card, always read it immediately as failing to do so is considered disrespectful.
Small gifts are also appreciated, although it is customary to refuse a gift when first offered. Gifts are not usually opened during meetings, showing that it is the thought that counts over the value.
A lack of knowledge of Chinese culture may lead to misunderstandings, so try to minimise the potential to cause offence. For more useful information about Chinese culture, including suitable business gifts and dining etiquette, visit the eDiplomat website.
Business dealings in China are generally conducted in the official language of Standard Chinese. Although English is taught in schools, competence in the language varies immensely, with the older generations in particular less familiar with it. Before meeting Chinese contacts, find out what their language capabilities are. If necessary, arrange for printed materials to be accurately translated beforehand or engage a translator for the event itself.