Many companies, both large and small, do business in China. Businessmen and women often travel to China for meetings and negotiations. Knowing the customs and being aware of acceptable behavior is oftentimes the key to success. Simple, everyday gestures and actions may be perceived as an insult. Insulting those you wish to do business with is a recipe for instant failure.
China holds the distinction of having the longest history of civilization. This long history is steeped deep in traditions and customs. Following the Chinese customs will ensure a smooth trip and ongoing strong relationships.
When to Plan Meetings
Avoid visiting China the week before and week after the Chinese New Year. The week preceding and following this huge celebration will be filled with planning and celebrations, which leaves little to no time to do business. The date of the Chinese New Year fluctuates with the lunar calendar, requiring business travelers to check and double check the dates before booking flights and hotels.
Most businesses are open six days per week and typically from 8 am to 5 pm. Sundays businesses are usually closed. Some businesses, especially in larger cities are moving toward a traditional Monday through Friday work week.
From noon until 2 pm, businesses and people take a break – leaving nothing operated or manned.
Business Card Etiquette
Have new business cards printed before embarking on a trip to China. Acceptable business cards should have the traditional raised black lettering written in English on one side. Avoid quirky or cute graphics. On the flip side of the business card, hire a reliable Mandarin Chinese translator and write the same information from the front side onto the flip side. Have the cards printed in raised gold ink, which represents prestige.
When you meet a Chinese business person and they hand you their card – never, ever place the card in your wallet and into your back pocket. Just placing the card next to your derriere is an insult. Place the card in the inside jacket pocket of your suit.
Meeting with Chinese Businessmen
Do not offer your hand with the expectation to shake hands. Many Chinese businessmen do not shake hands. Some business people from the younger generation are engaging in the practice of shaking hands, but never extend your hand first. Allow the Chinese business person to offer the gesture first and then accept their hand.
Expect the Chinese businessman to bow slightly or nod as their form of greeting. Mimic their greeting. Do not bow more deeply or less than they do.
If you are touring a facility, expect the workers to applaud your entrance. Respond to their greeting with light applause.
Business is always formal. They do not have feelings of friendship towards business counterparts at meetings or negotiations. Outside of the office setting, most Chinese businessmen still are not willing to form friendships because business is business.
Always greet your Chinese hosts with their formal address such as Committee Lead, Engineer, Doctor, Pharmacist, General or whatever their official working title may be. If the person with whom you are meeting does not hold a professional title, use Mister, Miss, Missus, Madam along with their name. Do not try to be familiar and use their first name only.
Business Dinners or Lunches
Typical business meals are to be first offered by the hosts. It is expected that after they host you, you return the courtesy. Your lunch or dinner should always match your hosts offering. Never offer more food or a more expensive restaurant than your hosts because it is considered highly insulting.
Never show up at a lunch or dinner late – always arrive 10 to 15 minutes early.
Do not discuss any business during the meal. The Chinese people do not mix eating with business matters.
Wait for your host to start eating his meal or drinking his drink before you eat or drink. Beginning before your hosts is considered very rude.
Never bring any type of food or drink with you to a party hosted by your Chinese counterpart – it is insulting.
If rice is served, pick up the bowl and hold it near your mouth to eat. Follow the lead of the host.
Never finish the food in your bowl because it will be refilled. Finishing all of the food in the bowl is looked at as an insult.
Be prepared to eat anywhere from 16 to 20 courses – you are expected to eat a little from each course. Always try whatever you are given or run the risk of a major insult.
Learn how to use chopsticks before you go on your trip.
Never place your chopsticks balanced on top of your bowl as it is thought to be bad luck. After you have eaten place your chopsticks on the chopsticks rest located next to your bowl or directly on the table.
Do not stick the chopsticks straight into the bowl because that is considered a religious insult.
Do your best not to let your chopsticks fall out of your hand or off the table – bad luck again!
It is ok to reach across someone to reach the food you want. The Chinese do not pass platters or bowls around the table. The food is set on the table and you are expected to reach for it. There are no serving spoons or forks, pick up your food with the end of your chopsticks that you did not eat with. If there is only one piece of food left on the platter or in the bowl – do not take it. It is an insult to the host.
If the food you are eating has bones, seeds or pits, place the inedible pieces directly on the table – never back into your bowl.
As soon as fruit is served – the host is telling you the lunch or dinner is concluding. Do not overstay your welcome after the fruit is served.
Gestures, Movements and Hand Signals
Do not talk with your hands. The Chinese are not demonstrative when speaking and will be distracted by your display.
Do not become touchy-feely and invade personal space. Chinese do not appreciate being touched as it is considered unwelcomed.
Point with your entire open hand – never point with a finger.
To motion for someone to approach you – hold your hand out with your palm facing down and pulling your fingers toward your body.
Avoid placing fingers in your mouth to pick something out of your teeth or to chew on your fingernails because it is considered highly disgusting.
Gift giving is a part of doing business in China -- some gifts are acceptable whereas others are found to be down right rude.
Always choose a gift for your Chinese business associate, but do so wisely or business failure may ensue.
When in doubt follow the lead of your hosts.