Are you looking to succeed in business in China? If so, read on to find out the 5 very important Chinese business cultural practices you need to know. These can make or break you in the business world!
1. Face (面子 - miàn zi)
Face is pronounced as miàn zi in Chinese and it is similar to reputation or honor. One very popular term is “maintaining face”. This means that one should avoid embarrassing themselves while maintaining a good standing with others in society. In western cultures, feelings are openly expressed but in China, it is rare for someone to openly express their true feelings. Sometimes it can feel that you are trying to decipher a code.
For example, if you compliment someone in a western society, they will normally reply by saying “thank you”. However, in China, people will maintain face by being humble and saying that they are not good enough. Even if they know that they are!
In business, the concept of maintaining face is sometimes tested. For example, if a Chinese client or business partner is telling you humble statements such as “Our company is very tiny and insignificant”, you can maintain face by expressing that you disagree with this phrase even if it is true. This ensures that you avoid embarrassing the other party and have maintained face. Maintaining face is essentially the act of keeping everyone on the same level and not lower the other party in terms of reputation or respect. Actions that can make you lose face are those that show disrespect, such as publicly criticizing someone, directly rejecting someone and failing to suppress one’s emotions.
2. Relationship building (关系 - guānxì)
Guānxì is a network of relationships designed to provide support and cooperation among the parties involved in doing business. It is very similar to the concept of networking in the western world where it is not about what you know but who you know. In China, to you need to build trust with business partners and colleagues over a long period and understand the relationships between different parties and the background to these relationships. The more time and effort you invest in building these long-term relationships, the higher the chance of success.
3. Gift giving
Gift giving is a common practice in China as the older generation in China remember a time when there were shortages of high quality produce. That’s why giving gifts are warmly welcomed. When receiving gifts, it is normal for the Chinese to protest and refuse the gift several times before they finally accept it. That’s right. They will outright refuse and protest but this doesn’t mean that they don’t really want it! You should preserve after the first few rejections. This goes for you too. If someone gives you a gift, you should also refuse several times before accepting. One important tip here is that business gifts usually come in pairs because it is more auspicious and lucky to give two gifts tied together.
4. Business formality
Chinese people are generally less formal than Westerners in how they dress for business. Whereas in the western world where business meetings usually take place at the office, in China, it is very common for business meetings to occur in the form of an informal meal at a restaurant.
5. Business-related dining
Talking about meals at restaurants, eating and drinking are a very important part of Chinese culture and meals are often shared between everyone at the same time in a restaurant. Although Chinese people do accept that the palette of westerners is different to theirs, they will greatly appreciate it if you simply tried an unusual dish. This will be taken as a compliment and will maintain the face of the host. Never openly criticize the food because the host would have gone through lots of time in thinking of what to order and this lowers the face of both parties.
While eating, you should watch to see if other diners are using their own chopsticks to take shared food, or if there is a spoon that is used to take the food from communal dishes. When pausing or at the end of the meal, make sure that you do not leave your chopsticks upright sticking out of your bowl. This reminds Chinese people of the incense sticks placed in in food at funerals. If you are ever unsure of your dining etiquette you should observe and follow the lead of your host.
Some mealtimes may include drinking. It is seen as impolite to have a drink or eat before someone at the table has made a toast or signaled to eat. Even after the initial toast, it is rare to see people drink from their glass without making a small toast to some or all of the other diners. This is a rule that applies only to alcohol and not tea!
If there is a toast, remember to keep in mind the hierarchy of everyone! If you are superior in terms of job title, feel free to raise your glass higher than the person who is toasting you. If not, be sure to hold it lower than theirs to show that you are respectful and not dominating. 'gān bēi' is the equivalent to 'cheers' in English, this literally means 'empty your glass or cup so be prepared to do so' in Chinese.
Watch our video summary here:
Keep the above business cultural practices in mind when doing business in China, or with a Chinese company to maximize the chances of a prosperous and successful business relationship!