Business Etiquette in China
China's culture and business practices differ from those of Australia. Having an understanding of Chinese business etiquette will be vital to your expansion into the Chinese market. Knowing and practicing common customs will also help you relax, avoid embarrassment, and focus on the matters at hand when it matters. This page provides a brief set of guidelines on Chinese business customs and practices.
You will find that the toughest business people will often also prove to be the most genuinely warm and accommodating hosts, and will overlook simple errors of table manners or business etiquette - as we would in Australia - if your purposes are serious and your conduct respectful.
Before beginning, recognize that the following qualities are valued by the Chinese and therefore relevant to your Chinese business interactions today:
- Saving and giving face
- Respect for elders and rankings (note that the latter is particularly important when dealing with government officials)
Business in China relies heavily on personal relationships
Doing research on the market is important in China, but personal relationships are equally essential to business success here. It is crucial to establish and maintain good relationships with key business contacts and relevant government officials. Attending industry networking events, contacting industry associations and municipal or provincial investment promotion bodies, and following up on personal introductions are all good ways to start the relationship-building process.
In general, meetings in China follow the same format as those in Australia, albeit with a bit more ritual. The Chinese value punctuality, so arrive on time or even slightly early for meetings or other occasions. The following points should be kept in mind:
- Dates: Check the Chinese calendar. If you are scheduling a meeting, avoid all national holidays, especially Chinese New Year, when the entire country effectively shuts down and it can be very difficult to organize meetings with key individuals. The May 1 and October 1 holidays also affect businesses: be forewarned.
- Preparation: Be well prepared in advance of your meetings. Your Chinese hosts will most likely know you and your business quite well. Have a detailed proposition of the value of your company and product; your counterparts will have one for you (see section below on "Materials"). Chinese businesses often meet with numerous foreign businesses seeking to establish relationships; if you are unable to capture their attention at the first meeting, you may not be able to secure follow-up.
- Can you communicate with your hosts?: Make sure you know the language capabilities of your hosts before the meeting. It is more convenient and reliable for you to have your own interpretation if your hosts don't speak English or have little English capability. Australian Multi Lingual Services are able to assist you with the provision of skilled English speaking interpreters in China.
- Meeting room set-up: If you have specific requirements for a meeting room set-up (e.g. projector and screen), be sure to communicate this to your hosts in advance of the meeting. They are usually happy to accommodate, but often do not have the in-house capacity to set up the technology on the spot.
- Materials: Have Chinese-language materials (e.g. brochures, presentations) about your company to share with your hosts. While your contact in the organization may speak perfect English, the decision makers in the company may not. It will be challenging for your interlocutor to convince others of your company or product's value if they are not equipped with Chinese materials. Australian Multi Lingual Services provides professional translation and typesetting services. Please be sure to make any translation enquiries prior to your departure or your client's arrival as it is best not to rush the translation process.
- Dress Code: Government officials and top management dress formally for meetings, while business people at working levels may adopt a more casual style. If you're not sure, always go formal - it will convey respect and seriousness. In the summertime, there can be a suggestion for men to "go casual". This means polo shirts or button-down short sleeve shirts, as opposed to suits and ties (or shorts - which are definitely not appropriate).
- Addressing others: Seniority is valued in China. It is important to address your counterparts by their title (Chairman, Director, etc.). Find out who the most senior person in the room is, and address them first.
- Introducing yourself: Say your name clearly, and remember to state both the company you work for and your position. As a point of reference, know that Chinese will refer to their company first, then their title, and then their name when introducing themselves to others.
- Handshakes: As in Australia, meetings often start with handshakes. Ensure that you are not too aggressive with your handshake. Don't be surprised if you are at the receiving end of a decidedly non-aggressive handshake. If things go well, you may also be on the receiving end of a prolonged handshake: anything goes. In western business contexts, you have probably found yourself in "squeezing" contests (among men): who has the stronger grip? The question will be "who lets go first?" Don't be shy about holding on if your counterpart is enjoying the contact - it is meant well.
- Giving/Receiving business cards: Similar to introductions, hand out business cards to the most senior official first. Chinese use both hands when giving and receiving anything of value, including gifts and particularly business cards; you should do the same as this is one of the first points at which you will make an impression. Presenting your business card in Chinese conveys respect to both your Chinese associate and to their culture. It also enables them to instantly comprehend your position within your company. Take some time to look at and acknowledge the individual's card. For Mainland China, Mandarin speaking audience, business cards should be translated into Simplified Chinese Script. For Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwanese audiences, a business card should be presented in Traditional Chinese Script. Australian Multi Lingual Services translates business cards into both Simplified and Traditional Scripts.
- Your title is important; this is how your hosts will determine who should be invited to meetings, what weight your words carry, and where you will be seated. Never place your host's business card in your back pocket.
- Your name: Having a Chinese name, ideally one with meaning rather than a transliteration of your English or French name will be taken as a sign of respect as well.
- Seating Arrangements: The host will take the lead, and you will likely have a name card or designated seat based on your role in the organization.
- Meeting structure: Particularly in government circles, meetings may follow a fairly formal structure, with the senior member of the hosting party introducing himself/herself and colleagues, and then proceeding to state his or her views and position on the matter in question. Following this, the leading member of your party should do the same. Subordinate members of the Chinese party will not usually speak unless asked to do so by the most senior person; your observance of the same protocol (even if your management style permits a more fluid approach) will have the advantage of conveying who is in authority and who, within your own team, may have special expertise or authority in a given area.
Services at a glance