FPL Advisory’s Policy Analyst Emily Clifford explains the important etiquette in establishing meaningful professional relationships with Chinese business.
Following business (and social) etiquette and customs is critical in establishing meaningful and long-term relationships with Chinese business and limiting the risk of offence.
Below are five practices that you should consider when conducting business relations with Chinese counterparts:
1. Punctuality and small talk
Punctuality is a virtue in Chinese culture, and it is of paramount importance to arrive slightly early to meetings, particularly the first. Arriving late is considered an insult and it also threatens social face. It is important to send a polite reminder with a suggested meeting agenda before the meeting. Rank is important is addressing individuals and should be considered at all times. The person of highest seniority should be greeted first. It is also important to display attentiveness at all times as this demonstrates respect.
Pleasantries, such as engaging in small talk at the start of a meeting, are vital to building friendship and rapport. Common topics include positive travel experiences in China, the weather and asking about family. It is seen as impolite to give blunt answers, such as ‘no’ in a group setting (this should always be done privately) and it is important to avoid topics of social taboo that could be seen to incite shame. Overly political discussions, especially those related to Taiwan, Tibet and the Maoist era, should be avoided.
2. Body Language
Composure and body language, including maintaining eye contact are important when conducting business. Gesturing with an open hand is acceptable, but it is considered offensive to point. It is very common, often expected, that business cards will be exchanged after initial introductions are made so it is important to bring an adequate supply and be prepared to distribute them widely. Cards must be given with care, using both hands. When accepting cards in return (with both hands) it is important to examine the card carefully for a few moments in a sign of appreciation and respect as business cards are seen as an extension of the person themselves. Never put business cards straight into your pocket or bag, instead place them in a business card case. It is unwise to write on another person’s card unless directed.
4. Dining Etiquette
Sharing a meal is a common way to establish relationships and often happens after several meetings. When invited to a meal it is important to wait to be seated as there is a specific order in which this happens and depends on the shape and size of the table. For example, the guest with the highest status or the master of the banquet will sit facing entrance – this position at the table is known as the ‘seat of honour’. Generosity is a virtue within Chinese culture so a large amount of food will be ordered and shared so as to ensure a guest does not leave hungry. The person extending the invitation always pays for the meal and tipping is forbidden. During the meal, typically held at a reputable Chinese restaurant, a number of exotic dishes may be included that are uncommon in Western culture (for example dog meat and blood products). It is important to be as polite as possible when offered such delicacies even if you must politely decline. Never place chopsticks upright in a bowl or tap the table or bowls with chopsticks. Meals are a place to build and cultivate personal trust and a strong relationship - ‘guanxi’ (关系) and so business and political discussion should be avoided.
Participating in work drinks is another good way to enhance relationships. The most commonly consumed liquor at dining events is Chinese ‘bai jui’ (白酒) which is often consumed during a toast and it’s important to accept the drink and say cheers ‘gan bei’ (干杯meaning ‘dry cup’).
One of the most important aspects, and a common thread through these steps, is the investment of time in building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Traditional Chinese customs encourage etiquette, respect and honour that are crucial to the maintenance and enhancement of ‘guanxi’. Most commonly, Chinese do not engage in business with companies and individuals they do not know so it takes time to build credibility, rapport and trust. Exercise patience, be polite and take care when building connections because they can be easily lost and almost impossible to reclaim.