Having an understanding of Chinese business customs can create opportunities and help build a trusting relationship with your counterparts. But if your home country is thousands of miles from China, or if this is your first time conducting business in China, you may question what's acceptable business behavior.
From scheduling meetings to addressing company heads, here are a few things to know about Chinese business customs.
Meetings and Appointments
- Meeting agendas are customary when meeting with your Chinese counterparts. The agenda should include all topics you will discuss during your meeting or appointment, and you should send this information several days before your scheduled meeting. In addition, after setting up an appointment, the person you're meeting with may not confirm the time or place until a couple of days before the meeting.
- When arriving at a business meeting, the host will send a representative to meet you in the lobby and personally escort you to the conference room. Likewise, if you're hosting a meeting, you should extend the same courtesy to your guests. This way, guests can greet attendees as they arrive to the meeting.
- Small talk is common during Chinese business meetings. This gives everyone in attendance the opportunity to relax and feel more comfortable with each other before starting the discussion. These opening conversations are brief.
- It is common for those in attendance to nod their head as the host speaks. This may appear as if they're agreeing with what's being spoken. However, this action is typical when listening to someone, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they are in agreement.
- Since Chinese business meetings and appointments are well-organized and structured, it's inappropriate and rude to interrupt someone or make comments during a discussion.
- It may be customary to arrive 10 or 15 minutes late to meetings in your home country, however, tardiness is considered rude in China. To be taken seriously and to make a good impression, you need to be on time. If you do arrive late, apologize immediately.
- English is not spoken at Chinese meetings. Therefore, you should bring an interpreter if you don't speak the language well.
- Seating is important at meetings. If the meeting takes place on a couch or sofa, senior guests are seated to the right of the host. However, if the meeting takes place at a conference table, these guests are seated opposite the host.
- Because seniority and rank are important, do not send a lower ranking employee to make initial contact.
- Chinese negotiations can be a lengthy process, taking as long as 10 days to reach an agreement. Also, Chinese business people may resort to manipulative tactics to get a desired outcome, such as making their guests feel guilty or staging temper tantrums.
- When arriving to a meeting, it is customary to shake hands with everyone in the room. Some Chinese business people may not shake hands, but rather nod or bow their heads. Follow their lead.
- After you're introduced at a meeting, the group may applaud. It is acceptable to applaud back.
- At meetings, senior colleagues are typically at the head of a line. Greet these individuals first.
- Higher-ranking professionals enter the meeting before anyone else, and this person is responsible for welcoming other attendees.
- It is appropriate to present the company with a group gift from your company.
- Other than handshaking, touching is unacceptable among strangers. Do not hug, touch shoulders or backs, or make any other contact.
Names and Titles
Before conducting business in China, it's important that you master the appropriate ways to address your colleagues.
- Use titles and family names when addressing your colleagues until you receive permission to use their given names. It is customary to use Mr., Miss or Mrs. plus the individual's family name. In China, refer to women by their maiden name.
- If you're given permission to use the person's name, the family name always proceeds the given name.
- It is appropriate to address Chinese people by their professional or government title. It is also standard to use complete titles and company names when introducing guests. For example, Mike Smith, CEO of Enterprise Media.
Chinese people exchange business cards at the beginning of meetings. Present a business card with two hands, and slightly bow your head when receiving a card. Those in attendance may understand English. However, it is standard to have business cards with English printed on one side, and Chinese printed on the other side. The Chinese side of business cards should have simplified characters. It is important that you do not simply shove business cards into your pocket but rather take time to read it and preferable place it into a business card case.
Modest, conservative dress is recommended for men and women. Men can wear sports coats, slacks, long-sleeve shirts and ties, although jackets and ties are not required in the summer. For women, pant suits and dresses are appropriate attire. Women should avoid low-cut tops, heavy make-up, too much jewelry and bare backs.
A Chinese colleague may invite you to a meal. However, business is rarely discussed while eating. To prepare for a potential business luncheon or dinner, learn how to use chopsticks. Also, it's considered rude not to sample everything on your plate. Other tips include:
- Never start eating before your host.
- It's rude to take the last piece of any food, therefore, wait until your host offers the piece to you.
- Small toasts are customary at all meals. You don't have to give a speech, but simply make eye contact and raise your glass. A toast to friendship helps establish a close business relationship.
- It's rude to leave a dinner before the guest of honor.
- Do not bring your spouse to a business meeting, although it's acceptable to bring a secretary.
Can you offer additional tips for mastering Chinese business etiquette?
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