If you’re visiting China for the first time you may be unfamiliar with their culture and etiquette, especially when it comes to business customs and protocol.
Chinese culture puts a strong emphasis on respect and politeness. Preserving a harmonious environment and upholding one’s reputation, social standing and miànzi – ‘face’.
RoutesOnline has put together some tips for various situations you may encounter, both during business meetings and at social events.
- Always arrive on time – punctuality is a virtue.
- Introduce people by their title, family name, job title and company e.g Miss Davies, Content Marketing Manager at Routes.
- Use title and family name until you are invited to use someone’s first name.
- Note that surnames are placed first e.g. Mr Yao Ming should be addressed as Mr Yao.
- Introductions should be made in order of seniority to show respect.
- Stand up when being introduced and remain standing until the introductions are over.
- Shake hands but avoid body contact such as hugging – public displays of affection are frowned upon.
- It is common to look towards the ground when greeting someone.
- Ni Hao means hello and Chinese people will appreciate your effort to use their language.
- Business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction – have one side written in Chinese using simplified characters.
- Use both hands to give and receive business cards.
- Examine a business card before putting it on the table next to you or in a business card case – don’t put it away immediately. Avoid putting it in your trouser pocket.
- Seating is usually arranged by rank.
- Don’t raise your voice as this is considered to be rude.
- Avoid interrupting or talking while others are speaking.
- Silence is used to think about what is being said and how to respond – don’t interrupt.
- Chinese people find it difficult to say “no” and will say “maybe” or “we’ll see”.
- They may avoid raising disagreements in meetings and stay quiet to save face.
- Written material should be available in both English and Chinese.
- Colours have specific meanings so use black ink on white background.
- Have an interpreter present if possible.
- You may be asked personal questions about your age, marital status, children, etc.
- Don’t expect any decisions to be made at your meetings – decision making is a lengthy and hierarchical process.
BODY LANGUAGE AND BEHAVIOUR
- Body language, facial expressions and tone of voice are observed to understand how someone feels.
- Frowning while someone is speaking is seen as a sign of disagreement – people usually maintain impassive expressions when speaking.
- It is disrespectful to stare into another person’s eyes.
- Sucking air in quickly and loudly expresses disapproval or surprise at a request – if you get this reaction, try to change your request.
- You may be applauded and you should applaud back.
- Blowing your nose and putting the handkerchief or tissue into your pocket is considered vulgar.
- Don’t ask Chinese people to turn off their mobile phones because this will cause loss of face.
- Present and receive gifts with both hands.
- Gifts are not opened when they are received – save it until the meeting is over.
- Do not give flowers or clocks because they are associated with funerals.
- Do not wrap gifts in a white or black paper – these colours symbolise death (red and gold are the most positive colours).
- Don’t give four of anything – it is an unlucky number (eight is the luckiest number).
- Gifts may be refused three times before they are accepted.
- Don’t talk about business if you are invited for a meal – it is a social event.
- Don’t arrive early as you will be seen to be hungry and lose face.
- Wait for your host to start eating first.
- You should try everything that is offered.
- Never eat the last piece from the serving tray.
- Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
- Don’t place chopsticks upright in your bowl – this symbolises death.
- Don’t put bones in your bowl – place them on the table or a bowl for that purpose.
- Hold the rice bowl close to your mouth while eating.
- Slurping and belching are signs of appreciation for the food.
- Leaving some food on your plate during each course shows that you appreciate your host’s generosity.
- Don’t start drinking until you toast others at the table – raise your glass and make eye contact.
- Sip your drink in reply if you are toasted.
- It is impolite to refuse a drink but sipping is acceptable if you want to restrict your alcohol intake.
- Holding your glass lower than those of more senior people is a sign of respect.
- Tipping is becoming more common but older workers may consider it to be insulting.
Be aware that Chinese business wear is conservative so avoid bright colours or jewellery that could draw attention to yourself.