For Western business travelers heading to China, acclimating isn’t simply a matter of getting their physical bearings — it’s about finding their way on an interpersonal level, too. There are vast differences between Eastern and Western decorum that when a foreigner goes in with little awareness and cultural sensitivity, it quickly can lead to an awkward dynamic and missed opportunities. Let’s avoid that. Make a great impression on your Chinese business associates by following the etiquette tips below. (And for more on how to prepare for a business trip to China, click here.)
The first thing you’ll be judged on: punctuality. Arrive early since the Chinese consider being late a serious offense. Tip: When booking your trip, make sure the flight arrives the day before your meetings. China’s airports are notorious for delays.
While assertiveness and bravado may be seen as positive traits in some countries, the Chinese value respect and politeness above all. Speak slowly in a moderate tone and avoid using hand gestures. Be patient if there’s a lull in the conversation and be engaged when you’re listening. Never cut off someone who’s speaking to make a point.
For your first introduction, bring an abundant supply of business cards, which are exchanged frequently in China. Have one specially made with Chinese on one side and English on the other. When bestowing yours, present the card in both hands and have the Chinese characters facing up and toward the recipient so they can read it.
When they present their own card, grasp it with two hands, inspect it with interest and then carefully place it into a wallet or cardholder. Don’t just stuff in your pocket or treat it like it’s a piece of paper you’re going to throw away.
Score brownie points with your Chinese partners by bringing them a gift, something special from your home country that cannot be found there.
Chinese like to take things slowly when building any kind of relationship — a concept known as guanxi — so be prepared to do a lot of small talk and personal bonding before getting down to business. Avoid political discussions, instead focusing on your positive experiences in China thus far.
A cardinal sin in Chinese deal-making: creating any sort of embarrassment or humiliation that will cause another to “lose face.” Never say anything that paints the perception you are superior and delicately navigate your way around sticky issues to avoid conflict.
A typical ingredient in the art of Chinese negotiations is the formal banquet dinner. If you’re invited to one, here are a few ground rules you should know going into this wonderful cultural experience.
First, seating arrangements. Guests are seated according to hierarchical order with the host or highest-ranking member sitting on the east side of the room or facing the entrance (it’s good feng shui). Take your cues from the host. Do not sit before they do and let them order the food (the menu likely will be in Chinese anyhow).
Allow the host to lift their chopsticks first before touching yours. The same goes for your drink. Wait until the host or another high-ranking guest makes a toast. Pace yourself with alcohol. Plenty will be served and you’ll be expected to take a sip every time a person raises their glass to you.
Generally, you’ll see at the center of a Chinese banquet table a lazy Susan so dishes, which are served family style, can be spun instead of passed around. It’s good manners to try a piece of food from each dish when it stops in front of you. Allow dishes to circulate the table before spinning them back to your own plate.
Don’t hog the more expensive dishes (e.g., the meat or fish) or take the last piece of food off a platter. Don’t polish everything off your plate either — it’s a sign you’re still hungry and that the host hasn’t done a good job.
Even if you’re not proficient, try eating with chopsticks (forks and knives may not be available). When taking a break from eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest, if provided, or neatly on the side of your plate. Once finished, lay the chopsticks on the top of the bowl or plate.
Though it’s the host’s responsibility to pick up the tab, it’s considered disrespectful not to put up a fight first. Play the game and offer a few times to foot the bill before giving in and graciously accepting your host’s hospitality. No matter how expensive the check is, allow your host to pay for it all. Otherwise, you’ll be insinuating they cannot afford it, which would be a total loss of face.