Business etiquette in China

Greetings and names

Chinese generally shake hands when they greet guests. However, the handshake should be gentle. Sometimes, as an expression of warmth, the Chinese will cover the normal handshake with their left hand.

It is acceptable to bow slightly when greeting someone. However, the bow is essentially a nod – do NOT bow from the waist like Japan.

As a sign of respect, Chinese sometimes lower their eyes slightly when they meet others.

Except for shaking hands, do not touch anyone unless you know them very well. Do NOT embrace or slap Chinese on the back.

The order of Chinese names is family name first, then given name. Thus, Zhang Wenqiang should be addressed as Mr. Zhang.

Unless you are good friend or have been asked to do otherwise, you should address your Chinese associates as Miss, Madam, Mr., or by their job title, followed by their family name. Rarely, if ever, do Chinese use first names on business occasions. The Chinese are quite formal and prefer using someone’s title. For instance, if Mr. Zhang is the Director of an organization, he typically would be referred to as Director Zhang.

Business Cards

Business cards are an essential courtesy in China – keep a supply readily available.

Ideally, have your business card translated into Chinese on one side and English on the other.

Use two hands to present your business card with the Chinese version facing up. Your name should face the person you are presenting the card to so he can read your name.

Use two hands to accept a business card. Study the name for a few seconds when you receive the card.

Do NOT write on someone else’s business card.

Rank and hierarchy

The Chinese have a great respect for fixed hierarchical relationships. Rank or position is extremely important.

At meetings and banquets, the most senior guest or the oldest person is introduced first and is seated in the position of honor immediately to the right of the host.

The most senior or oldest person generally sits in the center of the negotiating table, facing the door.

Age and position are seen as signs of wisdom and rich experience. Older foreign business people have an advantage, and generally receive more attention than their younger colleagues. Whatever your age, always show respect for the opinions and suggestions of your Chinese counterparts who are senior in age and position. Such an attitude will be viewed by Chinese both as a gesture of respect and as a sign of sincerity.

Dress and appearance

For both business meetings and entertainment, loud colors and showy jewelry should be avoided. Women should also avoid low necklines, mini skirts, and solid red or white colors (red is reserved for brides and white for funerals).

Conversation

Good topics for discussion include differences between China and the West, and the advances the Chinese have made.

Expect questions about your age, marital status, salary, and the price of personal items. Although your answers need not be detailed, trying to avoid answering will only invite suspicion and misunderstanding. For the Chinese, the specifics of your answers are not as important as your willingness to respond.

Avoid mentioning Taiwan and do not criticize Chinese leadership.

You should refer to the country as the "People’s Republic of China" or simply "China," rather than "mainland China."

The Chinese use silence as a way to avoid saying "no". Silence also implies, "There are still problems, and we would like to reconsider the main issues." Since the Chinese do not like to say no, you should avoid asking them questions that require such a response.

Another way the Chinese avoid a negative response is to say "We will do some research and discuss it later." Don’t be too encouraged by the word "research". In many cases, it means "We are not interested". As a foreigner, you can best size up a situation by paying close attention to facial expressions, gestures and overall body language.

Chinese communication is ambiguous, indirect and highly contextual. In conversation, the real meaning, especially if it’s negative, is often implied. What has not been said can be as important, or more important, than what has been.

Refrain from loud, boisterous speech and actions.

Laughing loudly is not polite or suitable in China when people meet each other for the first time.

Try not to be too talkative, and be sure to take an interest in what your host has to say.

Give your host a chance to bond with you, but expect your host to be more reserved in a business setting than would be the norm in the U.S.

When meeting someone for the first time for a business meeting, you should engage in general conversation before turning to business.

Gifts

After your meetings with the Chinese, it’s a nice gesture to offer a small company-related or USA memento (e.g. pens, caps, paperweights, mugs.) Gifts of any great value can cause embarrassment and usually are not accepted by the Chinese.

Present your gifts with both hands.

The Chinese do not usually open gifts in front of the presenter.

When wrapping, be aware that the Chinese ascribe much importance to color. Red is lucky, pink and yellow represent happiness and prosperity; white, gray and black are funeral colors.

Chinese do not usually accept a gift, invitation or favor when it is first presented. Politely refusing two or three times is thought to reflect modesty and humility. Accepting something in haste makes a person look aggressive and greedy, as does opening it in front of the giver.

When you are the recipient, remember that sincerity, appreciation and face are far more important than whether or not you accept what’s being offered.

The following gifts should be avoided: white or yellow flowers, pears, and clocks.

Do NOT use red ink to write cards or letters. It symbolizes the end of a relationship.

Source: Protocol Tips for China - Minnesota Trade Offfice