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Business etiquette in China

Hello everybody,

As you know, professional habits may differ from one country to another. In order to help newly arrived expats better understand their new professional environment in China, we warmly encourage you to share information and insights about the do’s and don’ts in the workplace.

For instance, are there office manners? How do you greet your co-workers? Do you greet your management differently? Is there a dress code? Particular rules to observe? Maybe a professional body language?

On another level, what is key for a successful professional meeting? Are there any steps to follow? How do you a start a negotiation?

In other words, what are the most important things to know for a successful professional integration in China?

Thank you in advance for sharing your experience!

Julien

I've worked as a teacher (English) for 8 years now in China.  I've worked in public schools (Primary to College) and private companies.  So, I will add my two cents to this discussion.

In order to really understand the culture one must be willing to learn it.  I found an article that was written about Amy Tan's book "The Joy Luck Club" and it spoke about high context versus low context cultures.  It was a real eye opener and it explained a lot.

China is a high context culture meaning that because of the shared background not much needs to be spoken, whereas many western countries (the USA for example) are low context, a mix of cultures with no common thread therefore more needs to be explained.

I found this very true because I was rarely told anything yet, was expected somehow to know it.  It was frustrating for a few years because I had to learn by trial and error and trust me I had many errors.

Here are some basics:

1. Never wag a finger in someone's face.  It is the worst offense you can make and will be remembered for a long time.

2. Never get angry at someone in public, in fact never directly express your anger.  It is most common here to tell someone else, who will tell someone else, who will then speak to the person. 

3. Learn about "face" and what it means to "lose face", then don't make it happen.  If you cause a Chinese person to "lose face" they will NEVER forgive you.

4. Never expect to be told anything, and even if you ask, never expect to be told everything.  Most things here happen on a "need to know" basis.  If you need to know then you will be told the minimum, however, if they feel you don't need to know then you are told nothing.

5. You can be proactive to a point.  Remember things here will change often, let me repeat, often!  Be flexible because it's the only way to survive.

6.  Nothing will be decided immediately, they just don't do it.  Business here takes time and relationship.  You will go to many dinners, smoke cartons of cigarettes, consume a brewery before a contract is signed.  (BTW, you can get out of the smoking part and the drinking part but you must be very non-judgmental doing it. One way I get out of it is to explain I have allergies and take medication.)

7. Before you can talk business, you will talk about a myriad of other topics.  Get ready to answer many personal questions.  It's just part of the system here.

8.  Learn what is taboo and don't talk about it.  Politics and religion are two topics best left at home. 

9. Never be too direct, nothing here is ever that easy.  Always find the most indirect way to get where you want and you'll be fine.  It's taken me 5 years now to finally be able to create the program I've wanted to teach.  It may take another 5 years before it's successful.  Don't be fooled by the "instant" businesses that spring up, they tend not to last.

10.  Relationship, relationship, relationship is the mantra here.  You need guanxi to do anything here and that takes time to build.  Think of it as networking on steroids. 

You can do business in China and it can be successful, but like anything else here, it requires time and patience.  Good luck!

Nothing is more true than point 4. If you need to plan ahead, make sure to keep asking about it - starting months in advance.

Whilst I agree with everything mentioned so far I would suggest learning something about the etiquette of business, especially eating out. Even such things as the exchange of business cards which should be held with both hands. At a meal there will inevitably be a "host" and it is wise to follow his lead. If he lifts his glass you do the same. Don't expect your glass ever to be empty. Someone will always top it up so you don't really know how much you have drunk. And remember, white wine is not made from grapes, it's a strong spirit more like rocket fuel.

For all the brouhaha about "losing face" in China, I am yet to come across any incident where a Chinese person has "lost his face"

I have been doing business in China for 14 years from now and during this period, on numerous occasions, I have come across Chinese suppliers who have blatantly violated the contracts, swindled money, supplied sub-standard goods and when confronted, refused to do anything about it. They just say we are sorry but are not ready to take any responsibility or financial loss for the mess they created in the first place. And this is a norm rather than an exception. At times, there are some companies who accept their mistakes and take steps to correct them. However, those are in minority.

If saving one's face was so important, I guess people would be more honest in their dealings.

So very true, My company had suffered from suppliers who simply sold us inferior products. We lost a few customers and now we deal with Korean companies.

All points are legitimate and only a start. Dealings in China are complicated and nothing gets done OVERNIGHT !! Nothing - business or in ANY relationships or friendships. All that said I like their "take on it" - it can avoid a lot of bs and nonsense that we in the West are professionals at.

I might add however to the point on the business cards .. Business cards mean a LOT to Chinese ... NEVER (after receiving it with both hands and reading it entirely) do you EVER put it in your back pocket.
It will be taken as an insult by many that it means nothing to you and the equivalent of say "Arse" to the presenter. Place it in your chest shirt pocket or inside jacket pocket and make it obvious.

The drinking is a big thing in business so if it doesn't agree with you and you're not a "happy drunk" - don't do it !

The MOST important thing in China is 面对 (Miàn duì) aka "FACE" and 关系 (Guānxì) aka "RELATIONSHIP" and describes the basic dynamic in personalised networks of influence and is a central idea in Chinese society. Nothing gets done in China without it.

Love China and respect it and the people and be street smart to reap the rewards. It is a GREAT place !!!

You're blessed and obviously doing business right - that's the point. Nothing you mentioned is associated to "FACE" - you refer to money and deals.

Losing face and honesty are not the same.  You can't even equate them.  In the west we hold honesty in esteem, but in China it has a very different meaning.  They do not see it as being dishonest when things are changed and no one is told.  It's just how they do things here.  It is a very deep rooted issue and not one that can easily be explained.

When I would point out that I'd been lied to, they would point out that in their culture I wasn't lied to, things had changed, nothing more or less.

So, with that in mind, if you are doing business here I suggest you also have someone who is Chinese helping you to navigate things.  Have a person who can be responsible to maintain oversight.  Contracts can be honored but it takes effort. 

One more thing, I have found that if you form good relationships (over time) then there are fewer issues with "honesty" and things will work out better.

So true, so true, so true:
I have ordered products on line, if they do not have the brand name that I have requested, they usually send an inferior brand however, they charge the same price as the name brand and wont accept returns.  As far as smoking and drinking, I don't do it, I refuse to sit at a dinner table and gumbay with everyone else.  I am not a big drinker, and I don't smoke, if offered a cigarette, I simply refuse without comment,  many apologize for not accepting, why should I apologize because I dont smoke or drink to a point of silly drunkenness.   
Ever go into a supermarket with a back pack?  They want to tape up all the zippers basically saying....we dont trust you.  This I find very irritating.  I have sent back food in a restaurant because of huge amounts of excess oil.  They took the dish back but charged me the cost of it on the bill.
I do basketball clinics in several schools and the writer who spoke about the lack of information is so correct.  I have been to three schools this year and have never been told there was a holiday, or a ceremony or something else going on. 
Now, allow me to clarify, I'm not a businessman, I am a basketball coach who scouts for players in Asia, anytime I can help out a struggling program or give advice to a young coach, I do so with pleasure.  From what I have read, I could never do business in China, I dont have the temperament.

A lot of people here are saying that "Losing Face" and "being dishonest" are two different things. Can someone please explain what exactly "Losing Face" in China means?

For me, losing face would be to dishonour a commitment, to leave my friends/clients high and dry for no fault of theirs, saying a lie and then get caught.. These are a few examples which would mean losing face to the other person in most of the cultures. So why is it different for Chinese?

Somebody suggested hiring Chinese people to navigate through this "cultural issue". Most of the times, I have observed that your Chinese staff, although working for you, tends to support the Chinese supplier and believe more in them than raising your point to them assertively. And many of my foreign friends share the same feeling.

Dear Zrinovsky:

Okay let me see if this will make sense, to "lose face" in China means that you have caused that Chinese person to be embarrassed in public and therefore they have been humiliated in front of friends or colleagues.  This is a huge deal for them.  It's not the same as how they view "honesty" because they don't always use the same measuring stick as we do in that area.

We see honesty as telling someone the truth, regardless of if that truth will cause them to then have hurt feelings.  They see honesty as being anything that doesn't cause a person to have hurt feelings.  So, let's say you want 50 widgets and they must be delivered by the end of the month.  Two weeks before you ask if they will be on-time and you are told, yes.  Then, when the day for delivery comes, they don't arrive, and you find out that the widgets aren't even being made for at least 6 more weeks.  You feel lied to, (which of course makes perfect sense to you) the Chinese person however, didn't want to hurt your feelings and thought it best not to tell you of the problem because in 6 weeks you will get your widgets, so what's the problem???

If you then tell that person in a room full of other Chinese people that they LIED to you, and in the process you wag your finger in their face and yell very loudly making a scene, you have now caused them to "lose face" which is worse than calling them a liar ONLY.  I hope that makes sense.

As for getting a Chinese person to navigate for you, that too is tricky.  You need to know the person very well and they need to have some cross-cultural ability.  They also need to know that they are working for you, which means often this person isn't someone directly on your staff.  You want someone with good business connections and who understands how to work the Chinese system.

Bottomline, I've found that if I have a "drop-dead" date I will back up my delivery time so that when it is late, it's not really late.  If I need it for Christmas, I ask for it late summer, then it will come by November. 

Dear Axemen:

Yep, totally understand the drinking and smoking and how you feel.  I have been known to get into people's faces at Starbucks who insist on smoking and the no smoking sign is right next to their table.  It's so rude.  I ask nicely first and if they insist then I get rude and I've also been known to get staff involved to enforce the no smoking rule.

As for being charged, I have not had that problem much.  I find that when it's happened, I don't go back and I make it very clear why.  I have also been blessed with very good Chinese friends who have spoken up for me.  Most of the time I navigate without much help or language and I've found most Chinese people to be rather kind.

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Irai: Thank you for your support on the smoking and drinking issue, and as far as returning food and still being charged, I did make them understand why I would not pay for it.
You are correct, I too really enjoy my Chinese friends, however, I find the more affluent Chinese to be less friendly highly opulent and like many foreigners, quite arrogant .
I love going to the rural school and putting on clinics, their appreciation of my visits warms my heart.  The parents invite you to dinner and cant do enough to make your stay enjoyable.   The last school I visited, was about 1.5 hours up into the mountains, they offered me a beer but in this province, they only drink it warm.  the mother sent her son about a mile down the mountain to insure I had a cold beer.  The kid must have ran all the way, because the beer was still very cold when it arrived. I assume, that every country in this world has its odd quirks, and China is no different, its simply a matter of adjustment.  Coach Mac

So why are you still in China? LOL Haven't you heard the phrase "when in Rome, do as the Romans do"?

zrinovsky :

For all the brouhaha about "losing face" in China, I am yet to come across any incident where a Chinese person has "lost his face"

I have been doing business in China for 14 years from now and during this period, on numerous occasions, I have come across Chinese suppliers who have blatantly violated the contracts, swindled money, supplied sub-standard goods and when confronted, refused to do anything about it. They just say we are sorry but are not ready to take any responsibility or financial loss for the mess they created in the first place. And this is a norm rather than an exception. At times, there are some companies who accept their mistakes and take steps to correct them. However, those are in minority.

If saving one's face was so important, I guess people would be more honest in their dealings.

Julien, thanks for starting this post. It will surely help many expats.

Irai, zhangfu and Dominic, you are spot on with your notes about the Chinese culture. They may be different from what some of us are used to but it is their culture and people should respect that. Without doing so, one does not have any business being in China (pun intended). :)

I have many Chinese friends and I've learned their culture as I was growing up. Many other nationalities as well since my dad worked for the UN and we were constantly travelling and surrounded by families from different nations and cultures. Living in NYC makes it inevitable to come across a different culture at every street corner. Whereas there are many difference (and similarities) between cultures, this is the same from a macro level of cultures to micro levels of even siblings brought up in the same environment. We just need to accept and respect that the person next to us may not necessarily be the same as us.

I'm Asian American and I have a brother-in-law who's white American. When he was courting my sister for marriage, he studied our culture. He knew things about us that we didn't even know or realize about ourselves. Anywhere from offering to pay for the meal 3 times before giving up to time being abstract. Of course, his effort in doing so, although not necessary in our mind,  melted all our hearts and welcomed him to our family. Similarly, he studied the Chinese culture before pursuing business in China which I'm crediting as one of the factors that he's doing great in that endeavor. And yes, he has long time Chinese friends that help him navigate the Chinese culture and business dealings.

I hope more people can add to the great tips already mentioned. Sometimes it will have to be trial and error but as long as we all respect each other's differences, we would all be better off.

My my my: when in Rome, how I dislike that particular phrase and suggestion, I am in China, and I dont want to smoke excessively, or drink uncontrollably.  I really dont want to hork and spit all over the place, or allow my child to urinate in places where people walk, Bum rush anyone in front of me to get a place on the bus, talk on my cell phone so loudly as to inform those within a mile hearing distance of my conversation.  light up in elevators and confined spaces, drive my car so erratically and without concern for pedestrians ignoring most road rules.  Throw trash anywhere and everywhere even though there are waste receptacles a few feet away.  Allow rivers to become so polluted that many in China have a high degree of mercury in their bodies from eating contaminated fish.  And where does all this come from, well.....my Chinese friends, who are also tired of witnessing this behavior.

zrinovsky :

A lot of people here are saying that "Losing Face" and "being dishonest" are two different things. Can someone please explain what exactly "Losing Face" in China means?

For me, losing face would be to dishonour a commitment, to leave my friends/clients high and dry for no fault of theirs, saying a lie and then get caught.. These are a few examples which would mean losing face to the other person in most of the cultures. So why is it different for Chinese?

Somebody suggested hiring Chinese people to navigate through this cultural issue. Most of the times, I have observed that your Chinese staff, although working for you, tends to support the Chinese supplier and believe more in them than raising your point to them assertively. And many of my foreign friends share the same feeling.

Ha, you nailed it, this part of "losing face", it occurred to me once, that if they really understand this from our point of view, but in light of their understanding, this seems to be just another regular day in China, hence the amount of violations done in a single day (market wise); let me give you a example: I was talking to a manager from a kindergarten, he was bragging about that company being "number one", this word showed up through our whole conversation, when I asked what it matters the most in education, profits or knowledge, he bluntly replied, of course money, without money you cannot buy good education, then I asked, is that way it is a normal thing to abuse foreign experts coming to teach English in China? He kind of hesitated and tried to change the line of conversation, but I kept insisting, then he said: Yes, I know we try to make a profit before life is over, that is our goal in China. Suddenly their school was not number one anymore, it was just like any other kindergarten pretending to be morally correct and highly professional, the worse part is that he did not understand the point, and although he accepted using dirty tricks to profit from foreign teachers, he just could not accept any wrong doing at that moment. Did he ever talk to me afterwards? yes, although he does not touch this issue anymore, he knew he lost face that day, but I don't think he feels embarrassed, one thing is for sure though, in China friendship is temporary based on benefits, if you can't offer something they want, you are as good as stray dog, nobody will keep your friendship for a long time.

I guess, this is the bridge where the two cultures collide, we value long term business, they just don't.

Hi Davl14,

Your reply(s) has left me intrigued....

You advised me to follow the old adage "While in Rome, do as Romans do" by which I understand you are saying that I should engage in Tit for Tat game with Chinese. Fortunately, that is not my way of dealing with things/people. Moreover, in your opinion, all the foreigners residing in China should learn the Chinese "culture" if they want to live here or get lost. I do agree that it is imperative to learn the culture of your adopted country but that does not mean I adopt anything and everything.

You mentioned about the White guy courting your sister and his efforts to learn Chinese culture. Going by your logic, I feel it should be the other way around. As you are an Asian, living in America, you and your family should have made efforts to learn western culture and made the guy comfortable.

Coming back to me, I have been running my own business in China for more than a decade (and a successful one) and over a period of time I have learned to navigate the labyrinths of Chinese business world.  I have made some wonderful personal and professional relationships during my journey and have had quite a few bad experiences as well which would happen in any country. I have largely  assimilated into the Chinese business culture and pointing out some of its drawback does not make me an outsider as you are trying to prove.

As far as business etiquette in China are concerned, quite a few posts here are a mere rhetoric of what has been written long time back. The young Chinese people who are into international trade, who are exposed to foreign cultures, have traveled abroad for business etc. are getting less and less formal. I hardly see any young Chinese professional holding name card with two hands and reading out  loud before putting it in "right place"

To me, this "losing face" thing is just a sham. If the other guy has decided to dupe you, even if you strip him publicly, he will just keep his cool, smile gently and at the most say "I am sorry, but I cannot help you"

yeah, listen to a school teacher. Please spare me your American B.S.

I agree with you. It is a great place! I control much of what I produce so I only have to deal with my suppliers and some employees. The people are great and the culture exceptional. After being fed propaganda from the US for 52 years discovering the real China has been quite revealing about what I have "learned".

Dear Kilnmaster:

Welcome, I feel much like you in regards to what I've learned about China since moving here.  There are many good books I've read while here that were written by Chinese who left China...but their insight was really helpful.  I highly suggest to people to read Amy Tan, "The Joy Luck Club", and to research about the differences in respect to high-context versus low-context cultures.  This last point has made a huge difference in how I've learned to relate to people here in China.

Good luck with your business, All-in-all, I find living here and working here to be much better than staying in the US and putting up with the problems there.  At least here I feel like I can make a difference, back in the US the problems seem to be entrenched and unsolvable.

I agree 100%

kilnmaster: You seem to harbor a ton of resentment towards both teachers and Americans.  May I ask what country you are from and why you feel the way you do?  Because you are enjoying doing business in China, is no reason to turn your back on your own country.  Yes, America is fraught with many problems, but so are other countries around the world.  I am from Canada, but coached extensively in  the U.S.and was rarely confronted with "American B.S"

A lot depends on who you do business with in China. There tends to be this supposition that "Chinese business culture" is the over-riding win. This is not the case and there are many, many Chinese businesses which are used to doing business Western-style now.

The only real rule of thumb is that the better the relationship; the more that relationship will work for you rather than against you. This is a universal truth of doing business and not something that is unique to China (whatever people may believe - transactional business relationships in the West can and do become relationship based business relationships too).

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