Updated: May 18, 2020
Will you be working in China soon or a Chinese business environment soon? Are you already dealing with Chinese colleagues and clients but don't know whether you might be inadvertently insulting them? Read on to find out six key business best practices that you should adopt in China which will help you in the act of gift giving, conversation and business-related dining.
Let us know whether you have come across any other Chinese business cultural practices in the comments!
1. Maintaining face: Miànzi (面子)
Miànzi or the concept of 'maintaining face' in China is a very important one. It basically means to avoid embarrassing oneself while maintain a certain reputation with others. Compared to western cultures, the Chinese can be considered sensitive as their feelings and expressions are rarely expressed openly and sometimes understanding their true meanings can fell like deciphering Morse code! You therefore need to ensure that all your words and actions show a degree of respect. For example, giving occasional compliments or comments on achievements.
In business, keeping or restoring miànzi is sometimes tested. For example, the Chinese often give very humble statements such as "our company is very small and insignificant". If you want to 'maintain face'. The best response is not to agree to the statement even if it is true. Your response should 'maintain face' and avoid embarrassing the other party, so you should say something that would keep everyone on the same level and not lower the other party in terms of reputation or respect.
Actions or words that can cause someone to lose face are those that show disrespect to a person. For example, publicly criticizing or highlighting negative points about someone else.
Here are some situations where you may practice the fine art of 'miànzi'
∙ Business Lunches
Business lunches in China are normally paid for by the person hosting and much time would have been spent on choosing the dishes. If you directly say you didn't like a dish you would make the Chinese party 'lose face' in this situation. If you didn't like the dish, it would be best not to outright express this.
∙ Direct Questions
When asking direct questions such as 'Do you want to grab dinner?', do not expect to receive a direct answer. If the answer is no, saying this directly would make the other party lose face. A better answer would be to say that you will think about it or to discuss it later. This is a way of protecting 'miànzi' and avoiding loss of face for both parties.
∙ Arriving late
If you are late, it may imply that you don't think enough of the other party. Call ahead to say that you might be late or delayed instead of just turning up and apologizing. This will put the other party's mind at ease and will let them know you actually do care about them.
∙ Emotional control
Suppressing anger or other explosive emotions is key to productive business negotiations. In China, the person showing their emotions is expected to be embarrassed. Getting angry shows 'loss of face' and an inability to control ones emotions.
∙ Mentioning Miànzi
You should not ask individuals about miànzi as it is a difficult topic to put into words, unless you know the Chinese counterparty or they are a very close friend of yours. The best thing to do is to use your own powers of observation as much as possible and to learn more about miànzi.
2. Patience and long-term relationship building, guānxì (关系)
This is similar to the concept of networking in the western world and the notion that 'it is not about what you know, but who you know.' Guānxì is a network of relationships designed to provide support and cooperation among the parties involved in doing business. To build trust with business partners and colleagues, you need a good understanding of long-term relationships and the background to these relationships.
It has been shown that those who invest in building long-term relationships with the Chinese have a higher chance of success. Repeated contact is said to be worth investing in. A chance to meet with someone or have dinner with them would be a great opportunity to build a strong level of trust with colleagues and business partners.
3. Gift giving
This is a common practice in China. The older generation of China remember a time when there were shortages and gifts of high quality produce. Therefore, gifts were warmly welcomed.
When receiving gifts, the Chinese will usually protest and refuse the gift by expressing 'no' several times before they final accept it. So don't back down upon the first rejection! You can make a similar gesture when receiving gifts too. When buying a gift for a business partner, it is better to give a pair of gifts. For example, two boxes of tea tied together with ribbons. Chinese people find it more auspicious to have two gifts tied together. You should always try to return the favor whether it be lunch for your colleague or a gift from your manager.
4. Business attire
Chinese people are less formal than Westerners with how they dress for business. However, the Chinese will still expect smart dress in formal business situations. If a business meeting turns into an informal meal at a restaurant, observe and follow the lead of others.
5. Small talk
The Chinese like doing business with people they know and trust, therefore the art of small talk before a meeting is important. A typical question to build small talk in China is asking if the person has eaten or where they've been recently. Other topics of discussion can be anything related to Chinese culture and weather.
You should try to avoid talking about past or present political sensitivities and anything which might lead to loss of face for anyone present or involved in the conversation. Also, avoid any criticizing of China's culture, environment, development processes or way of life.
6. Business-related dining
Eating and drinking are a very important part in Chinese culture. The Chinese generally eat meals shared between everyone at the same. They are also generally accepting that westerners have different taste to them, and as food is a very important part of their culture you must ensure that face of all parties is maintained. If you try the more unusual dishes, the host will most definitely take this as an implied compliment!
Some mealtimes may include drinking. Beer, wine or Baijiu (grain vodka) are usually served from a communal bottle. In some cases you may have all three types of alcohol available at the same time. It is seen to be impolite if you drink or eat before someone at the table has made a toast. Even after an initial toast, it is rare to see people drink from their glass at any time without making a small toast to some or all of the other diners. This is rule that only applies to alcohol not tea.
If there is a toast, remember to keep in mind the hierarchy of everyone! If you are more superior in terms of job title, feel free to raise your glass higher than that of the person you are toasting. If not, hold your glass 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.
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.
What other Chinese business cultural practices have you come across? Let us know in the comments below!