Understanding Chinese Business Culture & Etiquette: The Complete Guide

When you are attending a Chinese business meeting, there are a number of things you should be aware of before the experience. Cultural differences between US and Chinese businesses mean that you will need to behave differently to how you would when attending a meeting at home, or you risk causing offense. To make the right impression on your Chinese business associates when you are taking part in a China internship program or traveling to China for business, take a look at our Complete Guide. Make sure you are well-versed in Chinese business etiquette, and you will be ideally placed for both personal and professional success.

Chinese Business Cultures 

For more than two millennia, the Chinese have followed a way of life called Confucianism. Devised by the Chinese scholar Confucius in sixth century BC China, Confucianism stresses the importance of correct behavior, social rituals, loyalty, and obedience to hierarchy. To understand Chinese business cultures, it is therefore imperative to acknowledge the importance that the Chinese place on hierarchy, authority and age because their beliefs date back thousands of years.

The first thing to know then is that you must pay attention to elders and be respectful of rankings in every situation.

  • Take note of hierarchies immediately by watching how those around you behave.
  • Make sure to let those of a higher rank than you enter a room first, sit down first, and eat first if you are in a restaurant.
  • Show respect to older people and those in more senior positions than you at all times.
  • Shake hands with the most senior person first.
  • During a meal, make at least one toast to the most senior member of the Chinese party.

Chinese Business Attire

Business culture in China dictates that you dress in smart clothes for your business meeting. Wear formal clothes and do not wear bright colors. Men should wear a suit and tie, and women should wear a business dress or a suit with a blouse. Do not wear a top that shows your back, a low-cut blouse, excessive makeup, too much jewelry, or very short skirts.

Chinese Business Greetings

You should study Chinese in China during your internship and you will make a great impression on your counterparts by using some Chinese words and phrases. Your business associates will genuinely appreciate your efforts to speak the language, even if the only words you can say are greetings.

How to Meet and Greet a Business Associate  

When you are introduced to someone, it’s good business practice in China to shake hands. Wait for your counterpart to initiate the handshake and then respond appropriately. Accompany the handshake with a slight nod, or, if the person you are greeting is more senior than you, you should bow your head. In China, you place surnames first, so Mr. Yao Ming is addressed as Mr. Yao. If you know a person’s title, you should use it, for example, you would say Professor Yao. It is best to refer to a woman as Ms (name). According to Chinese business customs, this is generally the point in which you exchange business cards.

  • Be prepared that you might be applauded at your first meeting with your business associates, and if so, you should reciprocate the act.
  • If somebody asks you, ’Have you eaten?’ or ‘Where have you been?’ they are actually asking you how you are. Instead of replying with details of your last meal or excursion, simply smile and say ‘yes’ and ‘thank you.’

Chinese Business Cards 

Chinese business cards are also called a name card, or ming pian, and it’s quite normal to give out plenty of business cards in China. You should have your business card translated into Mandarin on one side, and when you offer your business card, have the translated side of the card facing up. Your business card should include your title and any significant information about your company, a Chinese mobile phone number, and your WeChat name if you have one.

How to Present Your Business Card

In accordance with Chinese business customs, present your business card to your recipient by holding it with both hands between your thumb and index fingers. When you receive a business card, spend a few minutes reading and examining it. Make a positive comment out loud, for example, notice the person’s job title. Then, place the card in your chest pocket, or if you are in a meeting, you can keep it in front of you at the table until you have finished the meeting. Never put a business card in the pocket of your pants or skirt. This is rude because it symbolizes that you are sitting on the person.

Chinese Business Meetings

Be punctual for your meeting, or a little early to make a great impression. Follow good Chinese business etiquette by maintaining your composure and do not show any strong emotions. Stay calm and collected, be kind and polite, and smile faintly. Think about your body language and where you put your hands; no biting your nails or picking food from your teeth as this is seen as rude. When the meeting is over, it’s normal in China for deadlines to pass by unmentioned. Accept these delays as inevitable.

How to Behave in a Chinese Business Meeting 

In Chinese business culture, you must uphold a person’s mianzi, which is their face or reputation. One way in which you do this is by not demanding yes or no answers. Never contradict, criticize, or patronize your associates as this results in loss of face for them. Instead, act in a way that boosts self-esteem; pay your colleagues sincere compliments, give them the gift of your time, stay calm, and show them respect. Further, in accordance with business etiquette in China, do not say ‘no,’ but instead, use euphemistic language. It is acceptable to say ‘maybe,’ ‘I am not sure,’ or ‘we’ll think about it’ instead of a straight out ‘no.’ You will learn more about the language and culture when you attend a Chinese language school.

Chinese Business Conversations

A major cultural difference between US and Chinese businesses centers around small talk; casual conversation is crucial in developing relationships and establishing mutual and long-term trust. Chinese business etiquette dictates that rather than getting straight down to business, you must instead be prepared to commit time and energy to talk to, and get to know, your business associates.

What to Talk About

When you are introduced, you can discuss topics such as art, the weather, local landmarks, your travel experiences, or your impressions of China – as long as they are positive. Do not talk about politics or any subject that could be construed as controversial.

It’s good practice to talk about family, and you should make an effort to remember what your associate tells you. If they mention they have a son, you can ask how their son is the next time you meet. Don’t be offended if the conversation becomes personal and they ask you questions that seem a little invasive to you; privacy is not generally practiced in China.

Chinese Business Connections (guanxi)

Guanxi is crucial to Chinese business culture. Guanxi can be roughly translated as relationships, networks, or connections, but you need to know that guanxi has more powerful connotations than these words can convey. Guanxi refers to the people who Chinese businesspeople call upon when something needs to be done, on which they can exert influence, and among whom they know favors will be returned. It might not always go in your favor, but you must respect guanxi as it is an integral part of Chinese business cultures. You are likely to come across guanxi during China internship placements because there will be lots of opportunities for you to network and meet people as part of your program.

Chinese Business Meals

Since Chinese business culture involves establishing strong relationships, you are likely to attend business dinners, banquets, and networking events before you are in a position to close the deal. A lot of these Chinese business practices are likely to take place outside of typical business hours and it is all part of the process. If you are invited out for drinks or a meal, you should go because you are building guanxi. You should also invite your Chinese counterparts out to eat, and if you do so, you will need to pay the bill.

  • During a business dinner, you could be served 20 to 30 courses. Don’t eat everything on your plate as this gives the impression that you were not given enough food.
  • However, be sure to eat some of everything to be polite.
  • When eating with chopsticks, never put them straight in your bowl as this is seen as offensive.
  • Refrain from tapping your chopsticks on the side of your bowl as this behavior is associated with begging.
  • If your colleagues belch, do not be offended as they are merely showing their appreciation of the food.

Chinese Business Gifts

Offering gifts to your associates will show you are invested in a long-term relationship, and this is important for guanxi and good business etiquette. You can gift electronic gadgets, alcohol, red wine, a quality brand of Baijiu – which is rice wine, a gift basket containing fruit, Chinese tea leaves, silk, and cigarettes from home.

  • Do not give cash as this can be seen as a bribe.
  • Do not gift clocks, green hats, books, pears, or chrysanthemums as these items have connotations that can cause offense.
  • Expect your recipient to refuse your gift at first which is done out of politeness.
  • Do not be surprised to receive a gift in return.

Other tips

Symbolism is very important in China. The number four is considered to be unlucky because it sounds similar to the word for death, and the number eight is considered to be the luckiest number of all. The colors red and gold signify luck and wealth, so these are popular colors to use on business cards and for gift wrap.

  • If you are presenting in your Chinese business meeting, materials should be black and white. Avoid colors.
  • If you are handing out documents, make sure you have plenty of copies for everyone.
  • Don’t write in red ink as this implies you are severing ties.

Whether you are attending an organized networking event or any other kind of business meeting in China, always remember that politeness and the correct etiquette are essential to business dealings. Be respectful of age and rank, do not rush business, be mindful of your appearance and conduct, and present your Chinese business card in accordance with the correct procedure. That way, you’ll be best placed for success at your next Chinese business meeting.



Translate »