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Cultural tips for doing business in China

Business dress

Professional business attire – a shirt, tie, trousers and jacket for men and a suit and blouse (not low cut) or business dress for women – should be worn when doing business.

Business 24/7

In the Western world, we value our own personal time. However this is quite different in China where the adage that life is business is very true. People talk about business 24 hours a day. A person's social life revolves around business continuously whether as an employee or business owner. The Chinese enjoy business banquets and personal dinners and lunches. Even karaoke, a favourite pursuit, is usually related to business. In fact, many of these activities are done outside of normal business hours, occupying a person's evenings and weekends.

Business card etiquette

A business card is also called a name card or ming pian.

A good supply will be required – you will need to give out cards to everyone you meet.

Layout of card is important:

  • if your company is prestigious in any way, such as the oldest or largest in the country, the market leader or the winner of an exclusive award, this should be clearly stated
  • emphasise your title or seniority.


Invitations

A Chinese person feels deeply honoured to either receive an invitation or invite a dignitary to a meeting or function. While at times appearing impromptu, ceremony is integral to many of these events. Signing deals, formalising contracts and the like are frequently carried out in casual surroundings such as restaurants or bars.

The prime reason for this informal style of doing business is that it is imperative in Chinese business culture to establish mutual and long-term trust from your business contact.

Meetings

Show respect by being punctual whether you are a guest or a host. It may be appropriate to arrive a quarter of an hour early, because your Chinese counterpart may do so.

Be patient. The first meeting may appear to be unproductive because of its formality. It will be set up on strict lines and will be hierarchical.

Small talk is considered important at the start of the meeting. There will be a lot of exchange of pleasantries and courtesies but you should avoid trying to move things faster. These formalities and pleasantries are important to building a relationship.

Chinese are very patient and prepared to spend a lot of time in getting to their goal. Impatience on the foreigner's behalf could delay the process even longer.

A good way to establish rapport is to inquire about a Chinese person's family – this is an important topic of conversation.

Other appropriate topics to chat about include the weather, what you have enjoyed about your visit to China, your other travel experiences etc.

The Chinese regard seniority as being very important. Always determine who is the most senior person and shake hands with that person first. There will be a very strict hierarchy of who greets you first, second etc. and where you will sit.

Similarly it is advised that your most senior representative acts as spokesperson and you refrain from having subordinates play a vocal role in the meeting.

Recognise that certain phrases mean NO. They include "it is inconvenient", "I am not sure" and "maybe".

A common part of a first meeting greeting is for the Chinese to applaud you. This should be reciprocated.

If you are using an interpreter:

  • give him/her time to get your message across but maintain eye contact with the person to whom you are speaking
  • don't use long or difficult sentences or speak too quickly
  • don't direct questions to him/her but rather to the official head or your most senior counterpart. If they feel a question should be redirected to someone else in the group they will do so.


Women in business

Western businesswomen are treated no differently to businessmen, and similarly respect is given to seniority and rank.

Guanxi

In Chinese, the development of long term business relationships is referred to as Guanxi. The concept works in both Western and Eastern cultures, however the difference exists in how it is actually performed. For example businesses in the Western world do not, typically, involve the exchange of gifts. In China it is considered an acceptable practice and sending a gift can only enhance your business relationship.

Reserved nature

Chinese people often keep their thoughts to themselves. This could be explained by:

  • Their life philosophy which encourages them to be more reserved and humble in character, not boastful
  • Their social and political systems which have more focus on the community's value and needs rather than individual thinking, rights and ideas. Once a Chinese person says something, it is considered in the public domain and out of their control.
  • The destruction and oppression which occurred during the Cultural Revolution is only one or two generations away, affecting many people's attitudes and values in terms of openness and trust of others. Many of today's adult generation were young children during very difficult times of oppression for their parents and related family.


Direct questions

Though many Chinese are now learning to respect the Western idea of privacy some can still be very straight forward with their questioning. It is not considered bad manners for you to be asked questions like "How old are you?" or "How much money do you earn?" or "Are you married?"

Writing dates

Avoid confusion by writing out in full the month of the year in letters. If you do write a date in numbers, list the year first, then the month, then the day, for example: 2011.08.11

Other tips

  • You may be applauded when you first meet your Chinese contacts. This is a common part of a Chinese greeting and should be reciprocated.
  • If you are asked 'Have you eaten?' you are not being asked if you are hungry, but rather 'How are you?'
  • Don't use red ink when writing as this implies you are severing ties.
  • The number 8 is considered the luckiest number whilst the number 4 is considered unlucky.

For further information, please contact Sara Cheng, Manager – Greater China region. 

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Sara Cheng
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