Active Business Travel China is a must read for the business traveller to China. Written by experts in Chinese culture and business, this guide provides you with the background you need to build your own international business base. Below are four short excerpts from the book.
“The background information and explanations provide really relevant insights into how to do business in China. It helped break the ice and develop relationships with my Chinese contacts.”
George Adcock, Business Manager, London Metal Exchange
“Don’t go to China without it!”
Peter Bishop, Deputy CEO of London Chamber of Commerce
Dress code and clothing
Whilst suits and ties are not always the requisite dress code for your Chinese host (especially in a more industrial environment) this dress code is expected from a Westerner at meetings. It goes without saying that a smart business appearance would give you extra confidence in an unfamiliar country, and would also imply that you have a level of respect for your host. It is easier for men; a couple of suits and a few shirts would cover more or less all eventualities and dispensing with ties in meetings is a good way to relax the atmosphere. However, whilst it can be slightly trickier for ladies, generally speaking, a few smart suits and layered business wear would be suitable. It is important to be mindful of the fact that too much exposure can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for Chinese men, (although it doesn’t mean that they don’t find it attractive!)
It is also important to be prepared for evening functions, but luckily you don’t need to dress up. The early Chinese dinners (about 6pm) normally take place straight after the afternoon meetings and don’t require extra outfits. The most formal ‘black tie dos’ enjoyed in the West are fairly rare in China. Over the Chinese New Year, the traditional ‘retro’ style becomes quite popular. Comfortable shoes are recommended as a one day schedule could comprise a series of meetings, a visit to the Great Wall of China and a lavish banquet in the evening!
It is important to note that the weather changes dramatically from one province to the other and because of the different build of the local men and women and their taste, it may be difficult to find what you want to wear from the local shops. It is also advisable to bring suitable attire to take into account the differing climatic conditions that prevail throughout China.
Business card exchange
The exchange of business cards is a relatively new business tradition. It has only become popular in recent decades, as the economic structure in China has evolved. The card is usually presented with two hands and a slight forward bow. Although this might seem a little awkward at first – particularly in a social environment like a cocktail party – it is important to follow this etiquette to begin to build mutual respect between you and your Chinese counterpart and form the basis of a trusting business relationship.
Business cards: getting it right
Even though a business card only contains a handful of words, it should never be under-estimated! A basic business card carries your company and personal names, the all-important job title as well as an ever increasing number of contact details. Without any common ground in terms of the Chinese language, this little card is of paramount importance in making a positive impression on your new associates so that they can remember who you are for later dealings.
Having the card in Chinese should be your most important preparation for your trip to China. The Chinese language is a pictorial language; each character has a meaning or a set of meanings and combining characters can produce new connotations. In English, you wouldn’t want to give yourself a first name of ‘Don’ when you have a surname of ‘Key’, and a similar situation could happen in Chinese too! It is important to note that some words have negative implications attached to them. It is a good idea therefore always to compile a series of positive words to convey an upbeat profile.
Another powerful feature of the business card is the job title. With China’s historically hierarchal background in mind, it is important not to undersell yourself. Perhaps it is reflective of the business world in general, but certainly in China people prefer to speak to decision-makers. As different companies have varying ways of structuring and assigning job titles, you must ensure that your Chinese associates understand the seniority of your position in relation to business decision-making. At the same time, you must also be careful that your position does not sound in any way superior to your boss. Many Western titles would be completely new to the Chinese due to the international differences in company structure. It is sensible to employ a little creativity in translating the titles to evoke a full understanding of what each individual does and his/her seniority in the company.
It is a well-established Chinese tradition to exchange gifts with visitors, especially during the first visit. Gift-giving is a ritual that plays an important part in any business dealings. Whom to give to, what to give and when to give are all important points of consideration. As mentioned, formal business etiquette has to be adapted to the organisation or the person you are dealing with. A strict procedure sometimes has to be adopted according to the circumstances. For example, if your counterpart works in a government department, the timing and the value of the present is better to be ascertained at a lower level (between the assistants), in order that protocol is suitably followed and no-one loses face. Normally, the highest valued gift should be presented to the key person, i.e. the decision maker and/or the highest ranked official. Other relevant people should also be considered. To avoid missing anyone out, extra gifts should be prepared just in case. The value of the gifts should be relatively moderate as corruption is a sensitive issue at Chinese government level. The most popular gift would be unfamiliar to the Chinese people, representative of your own country and evocative of a meaningful story or positive message. A good choice could serve as an ice-breaker, symbolising a good basis for the ongoing relationship between the two companies/countries. Apart from meaningful gifts, a popular gift would be something that the receiver can display in the office or at home. Initiating business dealings with a Western company in China is still seen as a sign of prestige; it elevates a company’s success, credibility and reputation.
When you meet each other for the first time, a gift exchange normally takes place almost immediately. It could also be part of a contract signing ceremony – normally at the end – to celebrate this milestone. The Chinese are often too shy or feel that it would be impolite to unwrap the present but they would be quite happy to do so if prompted – curiosity is a borderless impulse!
Remember to bring some small souvenirs from your own country. Warm and generous hospitality will be given from the top management to the junior staff. It is not appropriate to give tips or money – small gifts will be always remembered.
Top 10 most popular gifts to bring to your Chinese counterparts
- Alcohol and spirit: a good cognac, red wine, whiskey
- CD with music that is considered from your country
- Kitchen gadgets
- Stamps, if the recipient is interested in them (stamp collecting is very popular in China)
- A cigarette lighter, assuming the recipient is a smoker
- A fine fountain pen
- Cigarettes made in the West
- Handicraft made in the West
- Brand products from your specific country
Suitably addressing your Chinese counterpart
In contrast to Western names, Chinese names are read out in reverse order – the family name is followed by the first name.
The Chinese have a different custom for calling each other by their names. An individual who is above a certain age and social status will commonly not be addressed by their given name. There is no standard rule as to how to address your Chinese contact in a polite, appropriate yet friendly way. It goes without saying though that you should aim to demonstrate your respect to their age and social status, and to ensure that it is appropriate to the social situation and custom of the country. To avoid complications, it is safest for a Westerner to address a Chinese contact by their surname such as ‘Mr. Wang’, ‘Dr. Ma’ or ‘Madam Yu’. But for convenience and to demonstrate your desire to build a closer relationship, it can be shortened to ‘Wang’ or ‘Ma’ if appropriate. However, it is the norm to address the government officials or people with senior positions by their rank as well as their name e.g. ‘Chairman Li, General Manager Zhang’. But remember, never add ‘deputy’ to their title, even if they are. Using rank to represent a person’s status is especially important between the Chinese, as it is seen to show respect and ‘give face’. Conversely, if used inappropriately, this can create loss of face. In a less formal environment, to avoid addressing each other by name, people generally use a work title such as ‘Engineer Wang’ or ‘Accountant Ma’. ‘Teacher Zhang’ and their surname can often be heard between new acquaintances to demonstrate courtesy and respect. It originates from the teachings of Confucius: if 3 people are walking together, at least 1 of them can be my teacher. Between friendly colleagues, the Chinese would call each other ‘old Wang’, ‘little Ma’. For a non-Chinese speaking Westerner, addressing each other may be the only way of establishing communication with their Chinese counterpart. It sounds complicated, but don’t forget, you can always ask the person directly or seek assistance from your interpreter.
Having said all that, China is changing and becoming more and more influenced by the Western business etiquette. The younger Chinese people often give themselves an English name for fun or simply for easier pronunciation by the Westerners. These English first names are usually employed solely for practical use, they are not official, and often none of their Chinese colleagues would be aware of them. If you need to mention this person to the others, you may also have to get the spelling of their Chinese name.
Banquets in China
To welcome Western friends from afar, banquets are often hosted at lavish restaurants. Typical banquets consist of many courses, often with exotic delicacies not usually eaten in the West. Politeness decrees that you should at least taste the food on offer – especially if you are the guest of honour.
Deciding a table plan could take up a few minutes. The seats that face the door are regarded as the top seats, as such this is where the 2 senior people from each party are seated. Guests are seated further away from the host in descending order of seniority, with the most junior having their backs to the door. The interpreter is usually placed between guests who cannot speak each other’s languages. Don’t worry too much about this protocol – it is easier to let the Chinese party arrange it, and simply follow their lead.
It is usual for a Chinese host to serve food to the guest. If you are the host you should also try to serve your guest. In any case, you will need to join in the process of serving or being served. It is not an option to hide in the background!
Never arrive late for a meal – Chinese people often arrive early. They also tend to leave en masse as soon as the last dish has been eaten. Await the lead from your Chinese counterpart – Chinese hosts make it clear when the gathering is finished.
Typically in China, meals are eaten earlier than in the West. Lunch is served from midday and dinner from around 6.00pm.
There are no hard and fast rules for table manners – it’s more about fitting in. If in doubt, follow your host’s example. Chinese people don’t mind if you ask for knives and forks, though generally only a spoon is available in a Chinese restaurant. Be mindful that Chinese people tend to be quite amused and amazed when seeing a Westerner using chopsticks well – it may be worth having a practice before your trip! One gaffe to avoid – do not leave your chopsticks pointing into the bowl – place them horizontally on the rest provided.
Payment for the banquet is usually made by the ‘inviter’. A welcome banquet is usually hosted by the Chinese party, a ‘thank you’ banquet is reciprocated by the Western visitors. For informal meals, the Chinese would normally offer to settle the bill, but offering to take turns is always regarded as courteous. Splitting the bill has become fashionable amongst the younger generation, but it is not a general custom in China.
Frequent toasts are standard either with locally produced wine or ‘Bai Jiu’ (strong spirit), but ‘Pi Jiu’ (beer) is also widely drunk and it is perfectly acceptable to order one instead, especially when China’s beer has an excellent reputation amongst Westerners!
The head of each party is expected to give a speech and a toast using Chinese wines as part of the occasion. Some Western people become very popular among the Chinese people because of their capacity to drink Chinese wine! To some, it is a sign of being approachable and agreeable. The toasting etiquette can be overwhelming and generally speaking it is more prevalent in the Northwest of China. In these situations, the host may relentlessly persuade you to drink more. To let your host down is to be avoided at all costs; it is therefore advisable to prepare a good excuse in advance!
On many occasions during your trip you may be invited to give a speech e.g. the opening of a toast at a banquet; the opening proceedings of a contract signing ceremony; or meeting your partner company’s team for the first time. A speech is regarded as an honour for both the speaker and the audience. When making the speech, don’t forget to emphasise the following key points:
- Love and respect for your host’s country
- What a pleasure it is to build a friendship with the people you are visiting
- How you will benefit their organisation and ultimately their country
- The fact that you are planning for the long term, not for immediate benefits
- The fact that the relationship you are building is based on mutually beneficial ground