I’d heard the phrase ‘there’s no ‘I’ in team, but until I came to China I’d never seen this sentiment so thoroughly adhered to. As a westerner I was used to a capitalist working style where individuals often work to further their own interests in a business. But China is a collective culture and people place a greater emphasis on groups and think more in terms of ‘we’ than ‘I’. As a consequence, social interactions are very important.
In this post I’ll look at three keys aspects of business etiquette in China. If you’re moving there soon, you might also find it useful to read more about becoming an Expat in our free eBook The New Expat.
If you’re thrown in at the deep end in a business situation, you’ll first want to make sure that you’re addressing your host correctly. This is a key part of business etiquette in China and may not be as straightforward as it might seem. Unless they’re adopting an English name for the purposes of business, Chinese people use their surname first and their given name last. Generally you should opt for caution and address a colleague by their surname, but in the case of important titles like Doctor or Chairman, make sure you use the honorific.
Business cards are also a minefield for the new initiate, as they are an important part of business etiquette in China. When greeting colleagues you should hand over your business card double-handed with a slight bow. Receive a business card in the same way – but never just stuff it in your pocket. Instead make a point of reading and admiring the card and placing it in a case or similarly suitable receptacle.
You should also consider translating your business cards. If you do, it’s a good idea to check with a local colleague that they are accurate before using them. Business cards made out in red and gold ink are also seen as lucky.
Once you are past the initial greeting, you may find yourself at a meal with your Chinese hosts. Traditional meals generally take the form of many different dishes, from which either your host will serve you, or you can serve yourself. Expect to leave the table very full indeed, as hospitality is also central to business etiquette in China.
If you’re watching your weight, it’s advisable to stop eating long before you’re full, as you will almost certainly be urged to try another few dishes with an enthusiastic ‘Chur! Chur!’ or ‘Eat! Eat!’ from your host. And unless you want to carry on eating, don’t clear your plate. Instead leave a small morsel of food to show you enjoyed the meal, but you are completely full.
Another important aspect of business etiquette in China is the subject of ‘saving face’. I found this one of the most confusing cultural differences to master, but the idea is roughly equivalent to wearing a smart suit to work. Just as westerners would not want to be seen shabbily dressed in the workplace, so Chinese would rather their personalities were represented flawlessly. In simple business culture, this means that not only is it shameful for management to admit to mistakes, but exposing a colleague’s mistake is also a disreputable action. So you should tread very carefully around any issue of error when doing business in China, and be wary of pointing out a mistake you think has been made by another company.
For the most part, confrontation is avoided at all cost – subtle expressions or phrases are used to describe a disagreement or negative statement instead of saying ‘no’.” In fact there is no word for ‘no’ in Mandarin – negatives are expressed in the context of the sentence, such as ‘can’t’ or ‘haven’t.
A final thought on business etiquette in China
If you’re travelling to China to work soon, you can rest assured that simple good manners will usually steer you through any situation. More than anything, just keep in mind that harmony and loyalty within a group are very important and should always be maintained.
For more on making the move abroad, don’t forget to download our free eBook The New Expat which covers family matters, accommodation issues, financial arrangements, medical considerations and much more.