Doing Business Successfully in China: 6 Vital Tips on Etiquette

Understanding and respecting the intricacies of Chinese etiquette and customs is a vital element of conducting business successfully across their nation. Furthermore, to say that Chinese culture is simply “rich” is a serious understatement.

Thousands upon thousands of years of various ancient cultural aspects, handed down in utmost detail from generation to generation, has resulted in a series of complex rules of etiquette, yet relatively straightforward, even for the average Western businessman, to understand, appreciate and so respect.

With any new cultural relationship, the best advice is simply to be both tolerant and patient.

Showing a learned understanding and appreciation of these intrinsic rules of etiquette in Chinese culture will ensure any future relationship, whether social or for business, will be a warm and respectful one between you both, regardless of whether you’re a CEO, a mid-level salesperson or the company’s business attorney in China.

What follows is an insightful glimpse into these rules of etiquette, but by remembering and following them, you will at least put your best foot forward, and, suffice to say, not put that same foot squarely in your mouth… especially when it comes to the important business of international commerce.

Let’s begin at the top – or, at least, gaining or losing “face.”

1. The True Importance of “Face”

When learning how to develop the very best in Western-Chinese business relationships, of paramount necessity is the subject of “face.” Not literally, but figuratively. A phrase we use commonly is that of “keeping face,” and that’s probably the best way to explain this concept of Chinese culture.

In every single one of your interactions with Chinese business counterparts, you either gain or lose face. In other words, you gain or lose your business reputation. Granting compliments is one way of gaining face, whereas to highlight any failures on the part of your new colleague is a sure way of losing face. The idea of building your reputation – your face – takes time, usually over several successful meetings.

2. Look The Part

Acute businessmen understand this – traditional businessmen look the part. They dress to impress, because they understand appearances, certainly in commerce, matter. First impressions are an important part of Chinese culture – high-quality outfitting for your conservatively-styled suit will hit the mark every time.

3. Whatever You Do, Don’t Point

An accepted, yet brash style of western custom is to point – people, often in the business world, do it all the time. When you’re in China, it’s one of the biggest no-no’s going. Pointing is considered very rude, regardless of context.

Using an open hand is an acceptable gesture, but you’ll need to practice this – muscle memory and all that. To be honest, the best way to get and hold a Chinese businessman’s attention is to achieve eye contact – and keep it there with what you say.

4. The Handshake

Handshakes in China are flimsy affairs, at best, and certainly not the Vulcan-death-grip style of a Texan businessman. Expect the handshake to be brief and gently done. Additionally, keep your eye contact brief too, as too much eye contact can be misread as a direct challenge to the other’s authority.

5. Exchanging Business Cards

We tend to throw an inordinate amount of business cards around during initial meetings. Please don’t do that. Follow this advice:

  • Ensure your business card has both Mandarin and an English side. 
  • Present your card with two hands, with the Chinese side up and facing the receiver.
  • Receive the reciprocal card also with two hands, look at it briefly, then place it into a business card holder – not your wallet or your pocket.

In Chinese culture, business cards are treated as an extension of the person you are dealing with. Therefore, treat a counterpart’s business card with due respect.

6. Chinese Business Takes Time

Lastly, Rome, just like Shanghai, wasn’t built in a day. The typical Chinese businessman will prefer both frequent and lengthy meetings, as a way of determining and then building trust before any contracts are signed. 

It doesn’t just happen in the company boardroom either. You should expect to be invited to long dinners in quality restaurants. These will usually feature several courses – try everything, as that’s the point. You’ll lose a lot of face if you don’t

Crossing Cultural Borders

China is an ancient land, with a multitude of customs regarding any interactions. This is a simple list of etiquette rules in itself but absolutely vital for establishing credible and professional business relationships with your Chinese counterparts:

  • The True Importance of “Face”
  • Look The Part
  • Whatever You Do, Don’t Point
  • The Handshake
  • Exchanging Business Cards
  • Chinese Business Takes Time