The customs and culture of China are probably significantly different than the customs and culture of your home country. Therefore, it is prudent to learn these differences, so as not to commit any social or business faux pas. The observations below are the result of years of working and living in China. Certain customs may vary from region to region, or from one generation to another, but overall, these tips remain valid throughout China today.
- The Chinese will sometimes nod as an initial greeting. Bowing is seldom used except in ceremonies. Handshakes are also popular; wait, however, for your Chinese counterpart to initiate the gesture.
- Handshaking: This is a formal greeting that should, preferably, be firm and brief. After shaking hands, you may exchange your name or the title of your company.
- If you visit a school, theater, or other workplace, it is likely that you will be greeted with applause as a sign of welcome. In turn, you should respond by applauding back.
- Avoid making expansive gestures and using unusual facial expressions.
- The Chinese do not use their hands when speaking, and will only become annoyed with a speaker who does.
- To summon attention, turn your palm down, waving your fingers toward yourself.
- Use your whole hand rather than your index finger to point.
- The Chinese, especially those who are older and in positions of authority, dislike being touched by strangers.
- Acknowledge the most senior person in a group first.
- Smiling is not as noticeable in China, since there is a heavy emphasis on repressing emotion.
- Members of the same sex may hold hands in public in order to show friendliness.
- Public displays of affection between the sexes are frowned upon.
- Do not put your hands in your mouth, as it is considered vulgar. Consequently, when in public, avoid biting your nails, removing food from your teeth, and similar practices.
- Pushing and cutting ahead is common in lineups among Chinese, but they do not appreciate being cut in front of themselves.
- Theoretically, spitting in public is no longer acceptable and is subject to a heavy fine. In reality, though, it’s still a very conspicuous habit.
- Blowing your nose with a handkerchief is also acceptable, but it is advisable to turn away from people while doing so.
Mianzi (Face): “Face”, is a reflection of a person’s level of status in the eyes of their peers. It is about avoiding embarrassment in front of others by showing, and being shown, due respect. It is a subtlety that is not overtly discussed but is routinely observed. As a foreigner, Chinese people will not expect you to be overly aware of “face”. To understand the concept of giving, receiving, losing or saving face, one would need to know what are (perceived to be) the most common differences between Chinese people and Westerners. One group is well known for direct talk, the other for indirect talk, one group uses “we” whereas the other use “I”, one is self-enhancing while the other is self-effacing. Keep in mind that this concept is the key to understandngi why Chinese employees tend to avoid responsibilities, since it is a way to avoid mistakes and losing face. Try not to point out your workmates’ or employees’ failures in public; this will make them lose face and your relationship with them will be damaged forever.
Gift Giving: This is a big part of personal and professional relationships in China. When giving a gift to someone you are meeting or the first time, the best sort of gift is one that is unique to your country. The wrapping should be brightly colored (usually red), white and black should be avoided.
- Fine Pen
- Kitchen Appliances
- Handicrafts from home
- Illustrated books
Gifts to Avoid
- Cut Flowers
- White Linen/Tablecloth
- Storks or Cranes
- Blue or Black items
Generally, the recipient must make a show of refusing the gift when it is first offered. When this happens, you should offer it once again. Good etiquette dictates that the recipient wait until the donor has left before opening his gift.
Dining Etiquette: Your Chinese hosts will continue to refill your plate or glass until you tell them that you do not want anymore. Without your express refusal, to them an empty plate signifies hunger, and an empty glass, thirst. The Chinese prefer to entertain in restaurants than in their homes, especially when hosting foreigners.
- Should you be invited to a Chinese person’s house consider it a great honor. If you must decline the invitation, to avoid causing offence, explain the conflict in your schedule
- Punctuality is a must
- Always take your shoes off before entering the house
- Bring a gift for the hostess.
At the table:
- Use chopsticks provided rather than asking for a fork and knife.
- Wait to be seated, rather than selecting a chair yourself.
- Wait for the host to begin eating before beginning.
- If someone offers you something, it is polite to try it – within reason, of course.
- Do not eat the last piece from the serving tray.
- Chopsticks should be laid down horizontally each time you pause to drink or speak. Do not leave them in an upright position in your bowl.
- Allow the host to offer the first toast. “Gan pei” is the traditional word for the toast and everybody must empty their glasses. You have to give back any gan pei offered. Abundant alcohol consumption is common in business dinners, but you will be respected if you say that you can’t drink due to health problems.
- Do not put any gristle in your bowl. If there is no bow specifically for that, place it beside your plate instead.
- Hold the rice bowl close to your mouth while eating.
- It is common for Chinese to slurp or belch as they eat; this behavior does not have the same connotation as it does in the west. It merely signifies that they are enjoying their food.
Business Relationships & Communication
- Chinese people are reluctant to conduct business with unknown parties, so working through a local intermediary is crucial.
- Be very patient. Relationships, business deals and almost any type of undertaking take a considerable amount of back and forth, not to mention copious amounts of red tape.
- Bear in mind the differing levels of superiority when doing business with Chinese people and be sure to be appropriately deferential when dealing with CEOs and other top level executives.
- The Chinese prefer face-to-face meetings rather than written or phone communication.
- Accept business cards with both hands and do not stuff the card into your trouser pocket or anywhere else where it is likely to be sat on.
- Have one side of your business card translated into Chinese using simplified Chinese characters that are printed in gold ink – gold is viewed as a propitious color.
- You’ll find it beneficial to bring your own interpreter, if possible, to help you understand the subtleties of everything being said during meetings.
- Speak in short, simple, sentences free of jargon and slang. Pause frequently, so that people will be able to understand everything you’ve said.
- Before you arrive, have at least 20 copies of your proposal ready for distribution.
- Printed presentation materials of any kind should be only in black and white. Avoid colors that are attributed special meanings in this culture, as many of them negative.
- Generally, the Chinese treat “outside” information with caution.
- Except for those educated in the West, Chinese businesspeople largely rely on subjective feelings and personal experiences in forming opinions and solving problems.
- Belief in the Communist party line will be a dominant influence in all negotiations.
- Empirical evidence and other objective facts will be accepted only if they do not contradict Communist party doctrine and one’s feelings.
- In this country, responsibility for all decisions rests with the Communist party and assorted government bureaucrats. Individuals working within this network, however, are still accountable for their own actions.
- Local decisions are made by the head of the collective.
- In Chinese business culture, the collectivist way of thinking still prevails, even in sectors experimenting with free enterprise.
- “Saving face” is an important concept to understand. In Chinese business culture, a person’s reputation and social standing rests on this concept. Causing embarrassment or loss of composure, even unintentionally, can be disastrous for business negotiations.
- Include your professional title on your business card, especially if you have the seniority to make decisions. In Chinese business culture, the main point of exchanging business cards is to determine who will be the key decision-makers on your side.
- If your company is the oldest or largest in your country, or has another prestigious distinction, ensure that this is stated on your card.
- Business lunches are growing in popularity here. Business breakfasts, however, are not a part of Chinese business culture, except in Guangdong, Hangzhou and Fujian province where the ‘Morning Tea’ is very popular.
- Evening banquets are the most popular occasions for business entertaining. Generally, these events start between 5:30 p.m.-6:00 p.m. and last for two hours. If you are the guest, you should arrive on time.
- If you wish, arrive around 15 minutes early to a banquet; your Chinese hosts and counterparts will probably be present before the proceedings officially begin.
- Banquets are hosted with varying degrees of extravagance, usually in a restaurant.
- Wait to be seated, as there is a seating etiquette based on hierarchy in Chinese business culture.
- Generally, the seat in the middle of the table, facing the door, is reserved for the host. The most senior guest of honor sits directly to the left. Everyone else is seated in descending order of status. The most senior member sits in the center seat. Follow this seating pattern if you are hosting a banquet or a meal in your residence, whether for business or purely social reasons.
- The host is the first person at the table allowed to begin eating by declaring the first toast. Then, the rest of the company can proceed with the meal. If you are the host, take the first piece of the most valued food and put it on your guest of honor’s plate after the first toast. This will signify that eating can proceed and is considered a friendly gesture.
- In theory, business is not discussed during the meal, but don’t be surprised if suddenly a calculator and a price list appear from nowhere and a manager, that a few seconds ago looked completely drunk, starts to talk about a sale.
- It is not uncommon for a host to order enough food for ten people at a table of five. He or she loses face if there are not plenty of left-overs at the end of a meal. Rice, considered by many Chinese to be filler, is generally not served until the end of a meal. So, if you want to eat rice with your meal, be sure to ask the waitress to serve it early, particularly if the food is spicy.
- During a meal, as many as 20-30 courses can be served, so try not to eat too much at once. The best policy is to lightly sample each dish.
- Leaving a ‘clean plate’ is perceived to mean that you were not given enough food–a terrible insult here. On the other hand, leaving a food offering untouched will also give offense; even if you find a dish unappealing, try a small portion for the sake of politeness.
- One important part of Chinese business entertaining is a tea drinking ritual known as ‘yum cha.’ It is used to establish rapport before a meeting or during meals.
- If you do not want a ‘refill’ of tea, leave some in your cup.
- If you are served food that does not require utensils, you may be given a bowl of tea for the purpose of dipping and cleaning your fingers.
- It’s perfectly acceptable to reach in front of others for dishes and other items.
- Seeds and bones are placed on the table or in a specially reserved dish; never place these objects in your bowl.
- It will be appreciated if you use chopsticks. When you are finished eating, place your chopsticks on the table or a chopstick rest.
- Placing your chopsticks parallel on top of your bowl is believed to bring bad luck.
- Don’t flip the fish in the plate, it’s an omen of death.
- Sticking your chopsticks straight up in your rice bowl is considered rude because in this position, they resemble the joss sticks that are used in Chinese religious rituals.
- Do not put the end of the chopstick in your mouth.
- Try not to drop your chopsticks, as this is considered a sign of bad luck.