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Meetings and behaviour in business context in China

by: Elizabeth A. Tuleja, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights
The goal of this document is to give some specific details on how to behave in business context and in meetings in China, what to do and what not to do.

Why should I read this document?

China is a beautiful and diverse country with many customs and norms that are quite subtle and can be missed by even the most savvy business person. Understanding not only what to do but why things are done in a certain way will help you develop lasting relationships that will be both personally and professionally enjoyable.

Important!

  1. Relationships in China are extremely important.  Take time to cultivate them and don’t rush to “get down to business.” Trust and harmony are essential elements in doing business in China and can’t be rushed.
  2. Chinese business people take the long-term approach - so expect to spend much time in negotiating a deal (after the relationship has been developed) - which can include multiple visits back and forth with multiple revisions of the contract.  Even when a contract is signed, it is not “set in stone” in the Chinese business person’s mind - contracts can (and will) change.  And, knowing to expect bureaucracy and red-tape will help you be patient in the long run.
  3. Respect for elders in both family and work is essential. Always know who is in charge and treat that person with honour and respect.  Properly exchanging business cards is a way to demonstrate your understanding of rank and respect.
  4. Mianzi (face) - giving and saving face is extremely important in China.  Never criticize a person in public as it is important to maintain harmonious relations at all time. If there is a disagreement, quietly seek out the person in a one-on-one conversation.
  5. Proper etiquette during a dining event is necessary.  Keep an open mind and be willing to try new things.  Show your appreciation of the lavish banquet that you will surely be given and this will go a long way to growing your relationship.
"China is a country of contrasts with 5000 years of history and tradition mixed with expansive  economic and social growth.  Since it entered the World Trade Organization in 2001,  China has become the 2nd largest GDP in the world.  There are nearly  1.4 billion people, 56 different ethnicities, 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities, and two special administrative regions in this expansive territory with varied terrain. Putonghua (“common language”) is the official language of the People’s Republic of China, with Mandarin being one of the major seven language families spoken and almost 300 dialects. The written language (“Chinese” characters) is the unifying source since they have the same meaning wherever they are used, but are pronounced differently depending on the region. All of this diversity makes a fascinating and complex country."

 

BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS

Take your time

Expect business relationships to develop over time.  Because of centuries-old values advanced by Confucius, there is tight commitment to the family and in-groups.  One or two meetings will not get you the business – it can take years to develop a business relationship – Chinese people want to take time to get to know you in order to develop trust and harmony.  The Chinese have a long-term approach to doing business.

Seniority, Titles, and Names

Expect seniority when you meet with potential business partners as well as officials.  Always use the surname first. The Chinese surname (family name) always go first.  For example:  Wang Hui Fan.  Often, Chinese people will only use their surname (e.g., Wang) when referring to each other.  This comes from the collective and ancient tradition of stating where you come from – you are first and foremost part of a clan – a specific family.   Also, Chinese only have a surname followed by one or two (at the most) characters for their given name.  It is important when emailing or writing to know the gender of the person so that you can address her or him as Ms. or Mr.  Often, you will call someone:  Manager Wang; or Director Wang.  Seniority and title are very important.

Socializing

Expect fanfare.  Do not expect to get right down to business.  There might be many events organised for you, such as luncheons, dinners, excursions to cultural sites or places of interest, late night karaoke, and even tours of the organisation’s site, buildings, and the city itself.  It may not be very interesting (tours) but is the Chinese way of showing you the best that they have – just as when they serve meals there are many courses to indicate their prosperity in being able to share with you as their honoured host.  So, when planning a business trip to China, don’t be in a hurry to get in and get out – you might be there longer than expected – and if you don’t stay, you won’t be building the necessary trust needed for any business relationship to succeed.
 
Also, you may be tired, catch up on some work, or need some alone time for regrouping.  Don’t forgo social events with your host – you must make yourself available to engage in the relationship building that takes place during these events.

Meetings

Wait to be instructed when to enter a room and be shown where to sit (both in meetings and at dinner).  There is an elaborate seating arrangement with the host who sits at the place in the round table (that has a napkin fashioned so that it stands up) facing the door.  Your hosts or their assistants will direct you where to sit.  If you are chosen to sit next to the host on either side, you are considered an honoured guest and are in a place of importance.

Gifts

It’s always a good idea to pack small yet meaningful gifts to give to key people.  Pack many of them.  If you give a gift – make sure you give it to the main person in charge (the most senior person present) even though you may have done most of your work through a manager or even assistant.  That person will then decide (later) who to give it to.  If you wrap the gift do not expect that the person receiving it will open it.
 
Types of gifts could be a nice pen or pen set (especially if it has your company logo on it); a commemorative coin; something from your hometown (e.g., if you are from Philadelphia in the USA, maybe you could purchase small metal Liberty Bells that come in a box) and explain the significance to your host.  If you are from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, perhaps a small tin (with a picture on it) of specialty cookies would demonstrate the nature of your culture. The gifts should not be expensive (no more than $20) because of tightening anti-corruption laws.  It is especially nice if the token of your appreciation comes in a small box.
 
Some things not to give because of what they symbolise:  white flowers (death); clocks (death is coming); green hats with your company logo (your wife is cheating on you).

Numbers

The number 8 and 9 are considered lucky numbers (this is why the 2008 Olympics was on August 8, 2008 and began at 8:00 am in the morning.  Chinese people believe in fate and good luck, so picking an auspicious number is critical.   The number 4 is not a lucky number because it sounds like the character/word for death.

Follow up – meet one-on one

Begin to develop a number of relationships with key people.  Often it is through an intermediary (someone with whom you’ve developed a trusting rapport) who will help to “seal the deal.”  In China there is a complex system of mutual obligation called guanxi.  This is more than simply networking in the Western sense.  Guanxi is an intricate web of connections that one builds up over time.  You may do something to benefit a friend who will remember this and reciprocate years later when you need help.
 
Make sure you follow up with your contacts – don’t necessarily expect to follow up with business meetings – it will be necessary to have many lunches, teas, dinner, or karaoke parties so that your hosts can get to know you.  Often meeting one-on-one when you begin to develop trust is the way for you to later work on negotiations.
 
Friendliness and elaborate entertainment does not mean you got the deal.  It is primarily the way that the Chinese business person conducts business.  Reciprocate in small ways  - a thank you e-mail or letter; invitations to come to your home base to see your headquarters, etc.  And when your counterparts come, you must plan some meaningful events to keep them busy.  This is your way of reciprocating the growing relationship.

Name cards

When you give someone your business card, you’ve probably heard that you need to use both hands to present it as well as receive the other card with both hands.  This can be difficult if you have a drink or something else in your hand.  Since the business card is literally an extension of the person’s credentials and seniority, you need to do an exchange carefully demonstrating respect and tact.  Take the card and turn it over (look at both sides – in both Chinese and the other language it is printed in) and make a comment.  Notice the person’s title and make small talk about their work.  At a sit down meeting, you will place the cards in front of you in order to show that you are maintaining respect and trying to remember who each person is.  But don’t do this at the dinner table lest you spill something on it.  Don’t immediately place the card in your pocket or wallet or write on it in front of someone as this is seen as “tacky” or disrespectful.  Wait for a later time to put it away.  Later you can jot down a few notes about the people you met.
 

COMMUNICATION

Greetings 

Knowing a little bit of the Chinese language can go a long way.  Try to learn a few basic greetings (you can learn how to pronounce them by listening online to audio versions of translations).
 
  • To say hello: Ni hao  (nee how)    你好
  • To say: Good bye: Zai Jian (zeye jee-ahn) 再见
  • To say: Thank you:  xie xie (shay shay) 谢谢  
  • To say: I’m pleased to meet you (hun gao sheen rensha nee) 很高兴认识你.
  • If this is too hard, try: shing hway 幸会 which basically means “nice to meet you”.
Handshakes are common – bowing less so (and more for Japan).  Sometimes people make a fist with their left hand and then place the right hand over it – this is a nonverbal way of saying thank you.

Small Talk

Expect the meeting to begin with introductions and small talk.  Become comfortable with the hospitality that your hosts want to show you – regarding a lengthy explanation of their organisation and its history, introduction of all members engaged in the meeting, as well as facts about their city or province.  Learn something ahead of time about the organisation, the city, or the province to show good will.  It is best not to mention what you have found on the Internet regarding certain people at the meeting; otherwise they might think it an invasion of privacy.

Listen-Don’t interrupt

Listen and watch for what is not said.  China is a low-context culture which means that people observe with all of their senses to figure out what was meant.  The Chinese character for listening (ting) is made up of several characters that indicate you listen not only with your ears, but your heart, and eyes, and mind.
 
In China, it is customary to use dialogic versus diametric communication.  Dialogic communication is a way of listening and then responding – there is never a cut-and-dry way of looking at things (such as in the diametric ‘either-or’ thinking in the West).
 
With that regard, don’t put anyone on the spot – will cause to lose face – choose words carefully and find an alternative solution if there is a problem or disagreement.
 
Smiling, lavish hospitality, and drinking together does not mean you have gotten the business.  This is simply a way to show social manners.  A smile could also mean someone is uneasy.

Yes/No

Chinese business people may not say “no” directly and might find a way to step around a sensitive issue.  “That might be difficult”   or   “We will need to think about it”  OR  “So many requirements you bring to the table” could mean no. 

Interpreter

Always hire your own interpreter – don’t rely on your counterpart’s suggestion for an interpreter or you might be using one of theirs.  Do your homework, contact a colleague or associate who knows someone – and make sure that person is working for you.
 

EATING AND DRINKING

Meals

You will sit at a large round table with a round turntable in the middle.  It is common to have 10-13 different dishes served one right after the other.  Usually, someone will take a small portion from one of the dishes on the turntable, offer it to you, and put it on your small plate or in your bowl.  It’s not appropriate to “dig in” and serve yourself and fill your plate.  The meal will go slowly with everyone taking portions of the dishes that they prefer and eating those small portions bit by bit.
 
Fried rice and noodles are usually served last.  If white rice is served in the beginning – you should put a little bit in your bowl and then put some of the delicacies from the round turntable dishes on top of your rice.
 
When using chopsticks – don’t grip them in the middle – it is easier if you can hold them as far back as possible.  Never stick your chopsticks straight into your bowl (eg if there is rice in the bowl) because this is bad luck (it looks like incense in a funerary offering); rather rest them on the chopsticks holder that will be near your utensils.  Usually the servers will provide serving spoons or special serving chopsticks for the main dishes.
 
One other symbol of bad luck is “flipping the fish”.  If you are trying to take small pieces of the whole fish, don’t try to flip it – it symbolizes a fisherman’s boat being flipped, which can bring death.  Forgo the tempting morsel that might be hiding underneath. And, don’t’ eat the crudités (the vegetable embellishments created to make the dish pretty).  They are not meant to be eaten.
 
If there is something that is distasteful to you – simply decline – you could ask what it is – and say thank you – “thank you – you are surely providing the most delicious and special delicacies – but I have health issues and have to watch my cholesterol.”  Declining for a simple health reason is sufficient (or say you are mostly vegetarian).  But don’t go into detail.

Seating arrangements and serving

Wait to be seated and don’t start eating until either the host begins or signals for you – as the guest of honour –

Drinking

Toasting is full of goodwill and delight at a banquet.  You will see a little clear shot glass as well as a little glass pitcher in front of you.  The host will pour clear Bai Jiu (hard liquor) into the pitcher and as people toast, they will fill your pitcher which you pour into your shot glass.  This liquor is VERY strong so monitor yourself.  You can always decline and say that you don’t drink – or that you don’t drink hard alcohol (and you could raise your wine or water glass instead).

Topics to stay away from

  • Don’t criticize country leaders or politics
  • Taiwan (as independent state or country)
  • Tibet
  • Tian’anmen
  • Japan

 

Short case study

When I lived in Hong Kong, we had long department meetings (3 hours on a Friday afternoon) that were quite exhausting and frustrating because nothing ever got done in the way that my Western counterparts or I expected.  I had to learn that often meetings were for getting together as a group (collective participation) to listen to the ideas of the big boss (lao ban) who demonstrated his control of departmental activities and productivity (high power distance).  At one particular meeting, one of the senior members of our group made a comment to me about a decision she had made that affected me directly but had not told me.  It came as a surprise and I reacted to it by expressing my displeasure.  This caused her to lose face in front of the entire group, which created bad will and she didn’t talk to me for a year.  While in the US we can bring up disagreements, I had to learn the hard way that situations like this should be handled in a one-on-one basis in private.