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Chinese business etiquette tips and tricks

Edward KiledjianComment

I received some messages from readers asking about Chinese business culture and etiquette. Although I won’t write a 10 page essay on proper business etiquette and behavior, here are some tips and tricks.

The business card exchange

In North America, we exchange business cards as a means to remember someone’s contact information but we don’t really pay particular attention to it. Often times we take a business card and immediately stuff it into a holder or a shirt pocket.

In China, business cards are much more important and their exchange is usually done after the formal introductions. If you will be dealing with China a lot, it may be worthwhile to print a batch (or at least one side) using simplified Chinese characters.

To present your card, hold it with both hands and present it to your counterpart with the Chinese side facing him/her.  When presented with a business card, accept it with both hands, read it and then put it on the table next to you or in a business card holder. Do not stuff it into a pocket.

Some Chinese may be insulted If you start writing on their business cards so it is good practice to jot down notes on a sheet of paper and consolidate the information later.

Business dress

Traditional Chinese etiquette dictates that men should wear dark colored business style suits. Because I am a light packer, I usually stick to clean pants and a nice shirt (usually in the more classic darker tones).

Woman should wear conservative business  attire with a high neckline (doesn’t have to be a turtleneck but understand that the local business culture is much more conservative so avoid open style blouses.)

That’s pretty much it for clothing guidelines. The younger Chinese generation is embracing western culture and will dress in more colorful clothing but if you are meeting a senior executive, stay away from bright colored clothing.

Can I offer a gift?

Typically, Chinese may offer each other gifts for the New Year, a wedding or birth. As they embrace western culture, it is now also acceptable to offer a gift for someone’s birthday.

A well prepared food basket is always a good gift idea for a Chinese counterpart.

Remember that many Chinese have superstitious beliefs and never offer something that may be interpreted as severing a relationship (e.g. scissors, knives, or other sharp/cutting elements.)

Some items commonly gifted in North America are associated with funeral’s in China and should be avoided (e.g. clock, straw sandals, flowers).

If your gift is made up of multiple elements, remember that 4 is an unlucky number and 8 is the luckiest number.

As done with business cards, present gifts with both hands and remember that many Chinese will not open gifts when received. Also your gift may be refused a couple of times before being accepted so don’t take it the wrong way.

Time for the meeting

If you want to meet a Chinese national, try to book your meeting at least one month ahead of time and send your request in writing (physical or electronic).  Your request should include a clear and simple agenda and purpose for the meeting.

If you want to meet a new company that does not know you, the introduction should be done by a trusted local third party that can vouch for you, your company and the quality of your services.

Always plan to arrive a little early as tardiness is seen as an insult.

Some North American executives have a no-mobile policy during meetings, this doesn’t work in China. You cannot ask a Chinese national to turn off his mobile phone.

Rank is important and there is generally an expectation that the most senior people will enter first together then the rest in descending order of rank in the company. Generally your counterparty (with the same rank) will sit in front of you.

IF you do not speak Chinese, you must plan to bring your own interpreter.  Ensure the interpreter is qualified to translate the content you will be discussing (general business, legal, engineering, etc).

It is expected that any material you present will be available in English and simplified Chinese. Have your material proofread to ensure none of your content can be misinterpreted.

During business meetings, remember that the Chinese are non-confrontational and will rarely comes out and say no in a meeting. Instead, they will use code words like “let me think about it” or “let us review in more detail”. Unlike North America’s turbo speed negotiations, expect Chinese ones to be prolonged and slow. Come with lots of patience. 

The most senior Chinese counterpart will be the defacto speaker therefore you should do the same. Identify your most senior meeting participant and designate that person as your representative.

Regardless of your feelings or frustration, you must never loose your cool. Doing so may cause irreparable harm to the relationship.

Understand that the Chinese are expert negotiators and come prepared. Do not under-estimate them.