You’ve learned about Chinese geography, economy, and philosophy. You feel like you’re ready for your business trip. But, hold on a moment! Understanding Chinese business culture and etiquette is the next core step on the path to building lasting business relationships.
You might not realise how different Chinese business customs are from those in the West. Investing time in understanding the specifics of Chinese business etiquette will give your company a truly unique edge.
Below, the cultural specialists a EHLION share key principles of Chinese business culture— you can treat it as your “China Business Handbook”.
But remember, to address the specific needs of your business a tailored cultural coaching session is always the best solution.
Below we created a brief overview of the content, so you can click yourself directly to the part that interests you the most:
China dos and don‘ts
Before we address some more advanced concepts, such as how to say nice to meet you in Chinese, let’s cover the core Chinese business customs.
There might not be such a thing as best Chinese language for business, but as long as you are aware of the basics below, you’ll make a good impression on your business partners.
Opt for a gentle handshake
When greeting, a handshake is a good way to show your respect. Different from Western-style handshake with a firm grip, Chinese people prefer a gentler handshake.
Learn basic Chinese
Even just a few simple words will improve your communication and business negotiation in China. It’s also guaranteed to leave a good impression on your business partners. For basic phrases head to the section on language or, to match the language you learn to your business needs, book a coaching session with EHLION’s Chinese culture experts.
It's considered rude to point with your finger—instead, point with an open hand. Remember that eye contact in China is the best way get someone's attention without using your hands at all.
Chinese protocol: Business meeting etiquette
As an experienced business person you know making a positive impression relies highly on nonverbal communication. In China the importance thereof is even greater.
Chinese business card etiquette
Exchanging business cards bears a lot more importance in the Chinese business culture than in the West. Here are basic tips, to get you started:
Always present yours and receive Chinese business cards with both hands holding the sides of the card.
Consider adopting the Chinese business card format.
Ideally, your business cards should have one side printed in English and the other side in Chinese.
Include your professional title(s) on the business card.
Chinese business language for meeting & greeting people
EHLION’s language coaches are always happy to teach you the basics of Chinese business language. But, even if you don’t have time for a short language session, knowing several key phrases will make a huge difference for your stay in China. Greeting words:
Hello: nĭ hăo (你好)
Goodbye: zàijiàn (再见)
Thank you, thanks: xièxie (谢谢)
Exchanging names in Chinese
To introduce yourself say wŏ jiào… (我叫), followed by your name. For example, My name is Daniel Johns is Wŏ jiào Daniel Johns.
When addressing people, it’s customary to use their family name together with a title. Remember that the family name comes first, followed by the given name. For example: Mr. Zhang Wei or Miss/Mrs Wang Zan—in these two cases Wei and Zan are first names.
Nice to meet you in Chinese is jian dao ni hen gaoxing (很高兴见到你).
Finish your first interaction with this phrase and you’ll have a solid start of your partnership.
Chinese business communication norms
Even if you don’t conduct business in Chinese, language use needs to follow quite specific norms. Dropping simple Chinese phrases at the beginning of your business relationship is a good way to start building trust. But, there are several other important principles to bear in mind.
Before turning to serious talks or negotiations, it’s customary to start with smalltalk. Your business partners may ask about your journey, your opinion about China, Chinese cities you’ve visited, or your experience with Chinese people and food. Have a casual answer prepared not to be caught off guard!
Direct and indirect communication
Because of the structure of the Chinese language—which is highly dependent on context— Chinese people are much more indirect than Westerners. There are, for example, many “code” words or phrases used to say “no” or to express refusal in a polite way. You’ll therefore hear it’s not convenient, or sorry, I don’t know, much more often than in Western business communication.
Your business partners will often speak fluent English. But, the Chinese indirect communication style can make it hard to translate the intended meaning into actionable business moves. The good thing is that EHLION’s cultural coaches are always on standby to help you move these key conversations to the next stage.
Saving face in China
In China business relationships are highly dependent on the concept of face. Losing or gaining face is an important notion in the Chinese culture, so avoid self-deprecation and sarcasm. Aim to display your competence, and even more importantly, keep your emotions under control.
Nonverbal communication in China
People will sometimes avoid eye contact in China during conversations, especially when talking to those of the opposite sex or to strangers. They will also not talk about feelings directly, but rather communicate them with facial expressions, tone of voice, or body posture. For example, frowning means your counterpart feels confused or doesn’t agree with what you say.
Watch your business partners carefully, and learn to read their body signals for signs of enthusiasm or disagreement.
Business negotiation in China
Negotiations in China are very different than in the West; some would even jokingly call it a sport! But, if indeed it is a sport, it’s a team one. Your negotiation strategy needs to include support of third parties, most importantly the government or its representatives.
Before starting the negotiation process assemble a capable team on your company’s end, and clearly establish with your boss what the expectations are. The process is likely to take several meetings and might seem to go in circles. Be patient.
While many businesspeople have high-level English language skills, with a combination of cultural differences and the vastly different approach to deal-making, this alone will not immediately make business negotiation in China easier.
When faced with high-level negotiations you might want to resort to a Chinese English interpreter (such as we offer at EHLION), rather than using English as lingua franca. In most cases, hiring a Chinese interpreter will facilitate the process, especially when your Chinese counterpart cannot speak English very well.
Chinese culture taboos and sense of humour
There are several Chinese culture taboos and sensitive subjects you should refrain from mentioning. Even after several successful meetings, it’s really easy to ruin a budding business relationship with just one insensitive remark. The most important topics you should aim to avoid are political-related discussions—mentioning Taiwan, the question of Tibet, or matters related to human rights.
Humour in China contains a lot of cultural references that cannot be translated effectively. Be careful with making jokes. With a lack of familiarity with Chinese symbols and metaphors, you’ll risk offending someone. Never make jokes towards people who you don’t know and never joke about marriage—this topic is considered too personal.
Bonus tips about the Chinese business culture
Chinese number system
You don’t need to learn the Chinese number symbols, but it’s important to know the basic meanings numbers carry. It will help you understand why some businesses incorporate specific numbers in their names, or why people avoid organising meetings on specific dates.
8 is the luckiest number in the Chinese culture. If you receive an eight of something, consider it a gesture of good will.
6 signals smoothness and progress and is considered a great number for business.
4 is a taboo number. It sounds like the word for "death" and is therefore considered unlucky.
73 means " funeral" and, as such, is also a number to avoid.
84 means "having accidents"—not a number you want to use!
250 is often used to refer to a frivolous and thoughtless person.
Chinese symbols and meanings
Animals. Dragons, phoenixes, turtles, unicorns, lions, while cranes, magpies and Mandarin ducks are thought to be auspicious and benevolent.
Plants. The pine tree, bamboo and plum blossoms are some of the favorite subjects of painters. Bamboo is a Chinese symbol for strength, and all three are metaphors for determination and defiance.
Understanding Chinese business culture and etiquette is a complex endeavor. In this and other posts from our series we’ve given you a general introduction to the country, Chinese business hospitality, and maintaining lasting business relationships.
To bring your Chinese business relationships to the next level, consult EHLION’s cultural coaches. Our Chinese culture experts know how to tailor their advice to the specific needs of your business, regardless of its size or the sector you operate in.