Though the Chinese business people wear Western style suits and are open to Western business practices, China is an ancient culture, which has very nuanced rules of behaviour and etiquette. Most of these can be learnt if you do your homework before meeting the Chinese.
Though the Chinese will forgive most of your cultural mistakes if they get to respect you, it is best to avoid some mistakes which the Chinese feel very uncomfortable with. Here are some quick guidelines for avoiding cultural mistakes and succeeding when dealing with the Chinese.
Do not do these in China –
- Make the other person lose face. This is a cardinal sin. Keeping Face or Gei MianZi – Letting the other keep face (giving due respect) is a very important concept in China. You must show the other person appropriate respect according to rank and seniority. For example, if you are buying gifts for an initial business contact, make sure you buy better gifts for the senior managers instead of buying similar gifts for everyone. To shout at a Chinese person in public, to reprimand them in front of their peers or to raise one’s voice when exasperated will cause both parties to lose face. Remember always to refuse invitations if you have to indirectly. It is impolite to refuse invitation directly.
- Never write notes or letters using red ink. Using red ink symbolises that the writer will die soon.
- When setting down chopsticks between courses, never place them in the rice-bowl standing up, as this resembles sticks of incense burned at a funeral and is considered highly inauspicious. Lay your chopsticks horizontally across the rim of the bowl or on the table.
- Do not address business partners by their first name unless given permission to. Seniority is very important to the Chinese, especially if you are dealing with a State owned enterprise or government body. Instead of addressing the other party as Mr Hui Neng, address the other party by his designation i.e., Chairman Hui Neng, Director Hui Neng, or Manager Hui Neng. The sitting arrangement in a meeting room or a dining table is always according to rank, importance and seniority.
- Chinese people are superstitious about the number four, which signifies death. Many people think that this should be avoided.
- Though Chinese people are curios and like to discuss many things, avoid discussions, which may cause embarrassment such as death or divorce in the family and Chinese politics.
- Never get upset when someone asks personal questions about your age, marital status, income, and family background. This is rather common in Chinese culture.
- Never hand out your business card or receive the other person’s card carelessly or with one hand. When giving out name cards or brochures, make sure you start with the most senior person before moving down the line. When giving out a name card or receiving one, ensure that you are stretching out with both hands with the card. Remember to face the card you are giving out so that the receiving party gets it facing him/her correctly and can read at a glance.
Most importantly, gaining mutual respect is the key to managing relationships with the Chinese. Besides the above rules of behaviour, a genuine understanding of the other’s position, an appreciation of the other’s culture and achievements and a willingness to form a long-term give and take two-way relationship is necessary. Doing business with the Chinese is difficult if mutual trust and respect has not been achieved so make this your main focus. When you gain their respect, you have all the potential for a long-term loyal business relationship with your Chinese counterpart.
Finally, try to be a fair, open-minded and decent person, who uses common sense. It helps you achieve success.