Chinese Business Etiquette

Posted by Jamie Balkin

Nǐ hǎo, huānyíng! (“Hello, welcome” in Mandarin)

Over the past thirty years, China has become one of the greatest economic success stories in the world. Since the country introduced the “reform and opening-up” policy in 1978, China grew beyond recognition. Their transformation to a vibrant market oriented economy boosted its popularity with international businesses. With Chinese business expected to be a growing revenue source for many American companies, it is important to recognize the cultural and business etiquette that must be followed in order to promote the longevity and success of professional relationships in China.

Those new to China see a long list of cultural dos and don’ts and probably get a little anxious. They are told to understand the complex web that makes up guanxi networks, appreciate the nuances in the Chinese concept of “face,” and be aware of the subtlety of Chinese communication styles. This blog will guide all levels of business professionals to develop the essential cross-cultural awareness and skills needed for business in China.

Chinese Society + Culture

Face + Guanxi

The Asian concept of face is similar to that of Westerners, but holds even higher importance in the East. It is associated with honor, dignity and a deep sense of pride. If you cause someone to lose face—even unintentionally—you can cause serious damage to that relationship.

  • There are four types of face:
  1. Diu-mian-zi: this is when one’s actions or deeds have been exposed to people
  2. Gei-mian-zi: involves the giving of face to others through showing respect
  3. Liu-mian-zi: this is developed by avoiding mistakes and showing wisdom in action
  4. Jiang-mian-zi: this is when face is gained through others, i.e someone complimenting you to an associate

Guanxi and face are interconnected. Guanxi combines the aspects of face, obligation, reciprocity and hierarchy into a network of relationships that carries a certain expectation of mutual benefit.

Confucianism

Confucianism is a system of behaviors and ethics that stresses the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship. The idea is that through maintaining harmonious relationships as individuals, society itself becomes more stable.  These beliefs are based off of five different relationships:

  1. Ruler + subject
  2. Husband + wife
  3. Parents + children
  4. Brothers + Sisters
  5. Friend + friend

Within these relationships, Confucianism stresses: duty, sincerity, loyalty, honor, filial piety, and respect for seniors.

Collectivism v. Individualism

As a whole, Chinese people are a collective society with a need for group affiliation, whether to their family, school, work group, or country. In order to maintain a sense of harmony, they will act with modesty at all times and will not do anything to cause someone else public embarrassment. They are willing to suppress their own feelings for the good of the group. This is often practiced by the use of silence in very structured meetings. If there is a disagreement between two people, rather than disagree publicly, they will remain quiet. This gives face to the other person, while speaking up would make both parties lose face.

Non-Verbal Communication

Chinese non-verbal communication speaks volumes. Since the Chinese strive for harmony and are group dependent they rely on:

  • Facial expression
  • Tone of voice
  • Posture

Frowning while someone is speaking is interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Therefore, most Chinese are expressionless when speaking. It is also disrespectful to stare into another person’s eyes. In crowded situations, Chinese people avoid eye contact to give themselves privacy.

Chinese Etiquette + Customs

Meeting Etiquette

  • Greetings are formal and the oldest person is always greeted first.
  • Many Chinese businessmen will look towards the ground when greeting someone.
  • Address the person by an honorific title and their surname. If they want to move to a first-name basis, they will advise you which name to use.
  • The Chinese have a terrific sense of humor. They can laugh at themselves most readily if they have a comfortable relationship with the other person. Be ready to laugh at yourself given the proper circumstances.

Gift Giving

  • In general, gifts are given at Chinese New Year, weddings, births and, more recently (because of marketing), birthdays.
  • The Chinese like food, so a nice food basket would make a great gift.
  • Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate the severing of the relationship.
  • Do not give flowers, clocks, handkerchiefs or straw sandals as they are associated with funerals and death.
  • Do not wrap gifts in white, blue or black paper.
  • Four is an unlucky number so do not give four of anything. Eight is the luckiest number, so giving eight of something brings luck to the recipient.
  • Always present gifts with two hands.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.
  • Gifts may be refused three times before they are accepted.

Dining Etiquette

  • The Chinese prefer to entertain in public places rather than in their homes, especially when entertaining foreigners.
    • If you are invited to their house, consider it a great honor. If you must turn down such an honor, it is considered polite to explain the conflict in your schedule so that your actions are not taken as a slight.
    • Arrive on time.
    • Remove your shoes before entering the house.
    • Bring a small gift to the hostess.
    • Eat well to demonstrate that you are enjoying the food!
    • Table manners:
    • Learn to use chopsticks.
    • Wait to be told where to sit. The guest of honor will be given a seat facing the door.
    • The host begins eating first.
    • You should try everything that is offered to you.
    • Never eat the last piece from the serving tray.
    • Be observant to other peoples’ needs.
    • Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
    • The host offers the first toast.
    • Do not put bones in your bowl. Place them on the table or in a special bowl for that purpose.
    • Hold the rice bowl close to your mouth while eating.
    • Do not be offended if a Chinese person makes slurping or belching sounds; it merely indicates that they are enjoying their food.
    • There are no strict rules about finishing all the food in your bowl.

Tipping Etiquette: Tipping is becoming more commonplace, especially with younger workers although older workers still consider it an insult. Leaving a few coins is usually sufficient.

Now that you’re well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to China, don’t forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb! 

Zàijiàn! (“Goodbye” in Mandarin)