September 20th, 2013

Business Etiquette in China

by Jacqueline Whitmore

In a couple of weeks I’ll be traveling to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China. Business etiquette can vary greatly from country to country. If you often travel for business, it’s important to be mindful of cultural differences. Here are some dos and don’ts of business etiquette in China.

Greetings

Show respect when greeting someone with a nod or slight bow. A Chinese businessperson will often shake your hand as well. To show respect, use a person’s title followed by their surname. It’s best not to address others by their first name unless they give you permission. Family names often come first in Chinese. If you’re unsure which name is the surname, just ask.

Offer your business card with both hands. Present your card so the words face the recipient. Accept business cards respectfully with both hands. Don’t immediately put the business card away; instead, look at it a few seconds. In business meetings, place each person’s card on the table in front of you. This will help you remember names. And never throw your business cards around the table.

Meetings

Allow the highest-ranking member of your party to enter the room first. Hierarchy is important in the Chinese culture and any other order will confuse the meeting’s host. The leaders of each party will most likely be seated opposite each other with associates seated similarly around the table. Always ask, “Where would you like for me to sit?” Never plop down in the first available seat.

Conversation

Don’t talk business too soon. Every meeting should begin with small talk. It will help grow your professional relationships and allow everyone to relax. When in doubt, follow your host’s lead.

It is polite in China to nod your head as someone is speaking. It signals respect and understanding, but should not be construed as agreement. If someone else is speaking, don’t interrupt. Allow each speaker to fully express his or her thoughts and avoid the temptation to interject. Don’t challenge someone in a meeting or put anyone on the spot.

Meals

In China, it’s considered rude to talk business while sharing a meal. Enjoy the company of your colleagues and get to know them better on a personal level.

Appetizers are most commonly served first on a lazy Susan. This is a rotating tray on the table that aids in moving food. Be sure to taste a little of everything you’re offered. When you’ve had enough, avoid cleaning your plate. Your host will assume an empty plate means you’re still hungry and will offer you more.

Don’t be surprised if you’re offered an alcoholic beverage. Unless you’re taking medication, never refuse hospitality. Accept it. Drink slowly. Showing willingness to drink alcohol with your Chinese counterparts will strengthen trust and improve business relationships.

Have you traveled to China? What traditions or customs did you observe?

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