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Chinese business etiquette - The following are some tips that might help you crack the elusive China
So, you want your business negotiations to be a success in China. You have read a book or two on the subject, perhaps even read Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, but how do you negotiate that price down, or sell that extra widget?
The Chinese are practical in business and realize they need Western investment, but dislike dependency on foreigners. They are suspicious and fearful of being cheated or pushed around by foreigners, who are perceived as culturally and economically corrupt. It is very difficult to break through the "them vs. us" philosophy (foreign partner vs. Chinese). In personal relationships, the Chinese will offer friendship and warm hospitality without conflict, but in business they are astute negotiators.
English is not spoken in business meetings, although some Chinese may understand English without making it known. Hire an interpreter or ask for one to be provided.
Be prepared for long meetings and lengthy negotiations (often ten days straight) with many delays.
The Chinese will enter a meeting with the highest-ranking person entering first. They will assume the first member of your group to enter the room is the leader of your delegation. The senior Chinese person welcomes everyone. The foreign leader introduces his/her team, and each member distributes his/her card. The leader invites the Chinese to do the same.
Seating is very important at a meeting. The host sits to the left of the most important guest.
There may be periods of silence at a business meeting; do not interrupt these.
A contract is considered a draft subject to change. Chinese may agree on a deal and then change their minds. A signed contract is not binding and does not mean negotiations will end.
Observing seniority and rank are extremely important in business.
The status of the people who make the initial contact with the Chinese is very important. Don't insult the Chinese by sending someone with a low rank.
Chinese negotiators may try to make foreign negotiators feel guilty about setbacks; they may then manipulate this sense of guilt to achieve certain concessions.
Two Chinese negotiating tricks designed to make you agree to concessions are staged temper tantrums and a feigned sense of urgency.
If the Chinese side no longer wishes to pursue the deal, they may not tell you. To save their own face, they may become increasingly inflexible and hard-nosed, forcing you to break off negotiations. In this way, they may avoid blame for the failure.
Dining and Entertainment
Dining is used to probe positions without any formal commitment. Business is generally not discussed during meals. Meals are a vehicle for indirect business references.
The Chinese are superb hosts. Twelve-course banquets with frequent toasts are a Chinese trademark.
The Chinese sponsoring organization generally hosts a welcoming banquet. Foreign guests should reciprocate toward the end of their visits. Invite everyone with whom you have dealt.
Always arrive exactly on time for a banquet. Never arrive early for dinner. This implies that you are hungry and might cause you to lose face.
Spouses are not usually included in business entertaining, however, businesspeople may bring their secretaries.
Be prepared to make a small toast for all occasions.
The first toast normally occurs during or after the first course, not before. After the next course, the guest should reciprocate.
Three glasses -- a large one for beer, soda or mineral water, a small wine glass and a stemmed shot glass -- are at each place setting. The shot glass is the one used for toasting.
It is not necessary to always drain your glass after a ganbei (bottoms up), although a host should encourage it.
Do not drink until you toast others at the table. Chinese consider drinking alone to be rude. Simply raising your glass and making eye contact is sufficient. If you are toasted, sip your drink in reply.
A toast to friendship among companies will help cement a business relationship.
Unless you are totally drunk, it is not advised to refuse a drink. Sipping your drink is perfectly acceptable.
Leave some food on your plate during each course of a meal to honor the generosity of your host. It is bad manners for a Chinese host not to keep refilling guests' plates or teacups.
Seating is very important. The guest of honor is always placed at the head of the room, facing the door. Allow the host to begin eating before joining in.
Do not discuss business at dinner unless your Chinese counterpart initiates it.
Slurping soup and belching are acceptable. Cover your mouth with your hand when using a toothpick. Put bones, seeds, etc. on the table, never in your rice bowl.
Chopsticks are used for all meals. Tapping your chopsticks on the table is considered very rude.
When finished eating, place your chopsticks neatly on the table or on the chopstick rest.
When hosting, order one dish for every person present and one extra. In addition, order rice, noodles and buns. Soup usually comes at some point during the meal. The host should tell his/her guests to begin eating a new dish before he digs in himself.
The host (the one who invites) pays the bill for everyone.
If you are the guest of honor at a dinner, leave shortly after the meal is finished, as no one will leave before the guest of honor.
Breakfast meetings are rare, but you may request one.
Guests are rarely invited to a Chinese home. It is an honor to be a guest. Be on time or a little early for an invitation, and take a small gift.
Bedrooms and kitchens are private. Don't enter these rooms unless you are invited to do so.
All dishes are served at once in a home. The host will place portions of each dish on guests' plates. Sample each dish.
Rare beef is considered barbaric by the Chinese.
The Business Meeting
Make sure that what is to be discussed is made clear beforehand.
Don’t be late!
Punctuality is considered a virtue. Guests are greeted upon arrival by a representative and escorted to the meeting room; hosts are expected to be in place before guests arrive.
To the right:
The principal guest is usually seated to the principal host’s right, on a sofa or chairs opposite the door.
What’s in a name?
Names are very important to the Chinese and you must establish how to address someone during your first meeting. Chinese surnames come first, not last.
Call a Chinese person by the surname, followed by a title such as Mr (Xiansheng) or Miss (Xiaojie) or even Director (Zong) or Manager (Jingli). So for example, Mr Wang would be Wang Xiansheng, or even Wang Zong, i.e. Director Wang.
Have a plentiful supply, you’ll need them!! Business cards should be exchanged at the beginning of a business meeting. Try and have one side of your card in Chinese and you will score extra points. If you don’t have a Chinese name, ask someone you like to help you choose one!
On accepting a business card from your Chinese colleague make sure you use both hands to receive it and show your interest by taking some time to read the details of the card.
Putting the card immediately into your wallet or briefcase without reading it is an unforgivable insult to the Chinese business culture.
Don’t forget the small talk!
Avoid the temptation to disclose your strategy at first. Start out with general observations or questions. Chinese like to take their time getting to know you, getting a feel of who you really are.
Wining and dining often comes first. This is all part of the guan xi building process or making ‘connections’, crucial before getting down to the nitty-gritty. Deals are rarely closed on first meetings.
Speak slowly and use short sentences.
Do not become agitated if there are pauses in speech on the part of the Chinese. This is an accepted custom and the pauses are a sign of measured and considered thought in Chinese culture.
Do not expect an immediate reaction from your Chinese colleagues. The Chinese like to consolidate their position in a measured and considered fashion.
Also, avoid slang and colloquialisms; it is unlikely you will be understood.
Do not interrupt:
Remember who holds the floor and do not interrupt the speaker.
Never put anyone on the spot:
Always offer a way out so your counterpart can preserve face.
Just saying No:
Actually, never say NO, try and find more indirect ways of saying it, such as, ‘I will have to look into that, or, I am not sure we could do that.
Don't take your Chinese counterparts’ saying "yes" literally to mean affirmative, Chinese people have a habit of saying "yes", or nodding their heads, to show that they're paying attention or that they're following what you say. In such a context, the word "yes" does not mean that they agree with what you say or with your terms.
Have a good interpreter:
This can help you immeasurably in China. But make sure you have thoroughly briefed your interpreter beforehand and make sure he/she understands any special technical words you might use.
Always talk to the host, never directly to the translator.
Chinese people tend not to express what they have in mind in public. But when they're with you on a “one-on-one” situation without other people around, they're direct and straightforward.
If you want to know the truth — and how you can successfully do business with your Chinese partner/supplier — learn to pull people aside and talk with them privately.
If you have an ongoing relationship and need someone in your firm to represent you, make sure you introduce them in person to your Chinese counterparts.
The Chinese place great emphasis on personal introductions as the basis of trust.
Chinese negotiating style – While Westerners are generally results-oriented (focusing on tasks at hand, specific terms and conditions, and time efficiency) Chinese are relationship-oriented. They focus on harmony and flexibility, and are patient in getting the job done. They do all they can to avoid ‘tong chuan yi meng’ which translates to ‘same bed, different dreams’. Chinese are known to be tough negotiators. (See, also: “Chinese authority Dr. Kerry Brown on China’s issues and western ways“)
Building trust - Begin to build trust based on mutual respect, modesty, equality and harmony. Chinese are not comfortable being rushed, or jumping right into business discussions without proper introduction. They believe getting to know each other and building trust is necessary in negotiations.
Rationale – Chinese take time to understand the reason, logic and motivating factors in a holistic manner – connecting the dots. They must be convinced there’s a win-win deal to be made. They think long term. A bottom line approach or a quick fix may be perceived as simplistic and short-term thinking.
Cultural priorities – In negotiations, Chinese cultural priorities are relationship first followed by rationale, and legal. Check your cultural assumptions in relation to these priorities – they may be in reverse order.
Style – Chinese listen more than they talk. They may appear to be delaying, but they are gathering pertinent details on issues and personalities. The indirect, unemotional style accompanied by vagueness allows room for maneuverability and outs. Silence is ‘constructive ambiguity’. It is rude to interrupt. To build a productive relationship each side must accept different styles of team building and group dynamics.
Compromise – Chinese know what they want and are willing to compromise. ‘Give and take’ is a means to achieve harmony in Chinese culture. As such, compromise is not considered weak or giving in.
Revisiting agreed items or terms – It is not unusual for Chinese to revisit items previously discussed and agreed upon, and try to renegotiate. If this happens, graciously enter into talks, be flexible and well prepared for what you are willing and unwilling to do, and prepare your organization that there may have to be changes.
Attitude matters and yours will be constantly read by the Chinese. Your patience, professionalism, and courtesy are sending messages of your personal integrity. Understand that you must take many small steps before taking a larger steps. Focus on developing a consensus.
Know and stick with your company’s policy on ethics. Major Chinese businesses are familiar with the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. You may be tested, but in the words of Professor Baocheng Liu, “Do not be a loose girl; be a fine lady” with consistent ethical practices.
Listen empathetically and observe. Pay attention to details. Note Chinese body language and hidden meanings.
Understand cross-cultural communication barriers such as cultural frames, traditions, etiquette, time and place, status and power, English comprehension level.
Always bring your own interpreter, even when the Chinese offer to provide one for you.
The one who speaks least in a meeting may actually be the most powerful. Be sure to know the position and affiliation (company, Communist party) of those you’re dealing with.
Don’t rush to give your opinion or advice. Take the time to diagnose and understand the problem first. Respect viewpoints of others.
Make your ‘self’ easy to understand. Speak clearly, concisely, and slowly. Avoid asking ‘or’ questions (you may get a ‘both’ answer). Ask questions and clarify politely.
Focus on issues. Take the blame out of discussions. Don’t insist you are right even if you are. Leave room for ‘outs’ (face-saving maneuvers).
Be tactful when you must say no. A direct and blunt no may be perceived as a slap in the face. Use wording such as like “It’s very difficult for me to…..”, “It’s really not possible to….”
Try not to overuse the word ‘you’; instead use the third person ‘one’. Pronouns aren’t used as much in Mandarin as in English, and as the listener, hearing ‘you’ could be taken personally. For example, instead of “You should not jump to conclusions without all of the facts…”, say, “One should not jump to conclusions…”
Err on the side of being more formal in meetings. Sit straight and be attentive. Slouching and relaxing postures are considered bad manners. It’s impolite to cause disruptions such as standing up to stretch and walking around the room. Do not interrupt. Unless the presenter or the leader makes a point to allow so, asking questions during a presentation is considered interrupting and rude. Whenever possible, use laser pointers. Avoid pointing with any one finger; use whole-hand gestures instead.
However your meetings go with your Chinese counterparts, focus on building the relationship for the long term, and extending your guan-xi network. Patience, politeness and persistence will bring opportunities for you and your Chinese customers, suppliers or coworkers.
Recognize that social-personal relationships drive business culture in a holistic way. They’re cultivated over time. Remember, relationships first and results will follow.
Dining Out in China
Banquets in restaurants are the preferred form of entertainment and are used to build relationships before getting down to matters of business. Guests will rarely, if ever, be invited to somebody's home. Wait to be seated, as it's based on hierarchy as in meetings. As a courtesy diners should try every dish that's offered and are advised to sample a small portion of each. Banquets can consist of at least twenty courses.
Business Culture in China
The Chinese might offer knives and forks for guests who cannot adequately handle chopsticks. If the opposite is the case, there are some points about chopsticks that must be remembered. These utensils should never be inserted in an upright position into a bowl of rice. This is how the Chinese show respect to dead ancestors, similar to how Westerners put flowers near tombstones.
If guests clean their plates completely, the Chinese will assume that they want more to eat. The Western custom of getting together for after dinner drinks is still rare, but coffee may be served. Business is never discussed while eating.
Gift Giving in China
Present a gift with both hands. Gifts are generally not opened upon receiving. Always give a gift to everyone present or don't give gifts at all.
Older Chinese usually refuse a gift at first to be polite. Offer a second time.
Never give a gift of great value until a clear relationship is established. This would cause embarrassment and may not be accepted. Never give gifts in sets (i.e., dishes), but never in sets of four (a number associated with death).
Avoid white, which is symbolic of death, especially of parents, and black, which symbolizes tragedy or death.
When invited to someone's home, always bring a small gift for the hostess, such as brandy, chocolates or cakes.
Be prepared to exchange a modest gift with your business colleagues at the first meeting. Not giving a gift could start a business meeting off on the wrong foot.
Always give gifts to each member of the Chinese delegation that meets you in the order in which they were introduced. Suggested gifts: cigarettes (especially Marlboro and Kent), French brandy, whiskey, pens, lighters, desk attire, cognac, books, framed paintings. Give more valuable gifts — like cellular phones or small CD players — to senior level people.
Give a group gift from your company to the host company. Present this gift to the leader of the delegation.
Taboo Conversation Topics in China
Guests will be well advised to stay away from these topics. They are Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square. In other words, policies that are challenged by countries such as the United States. Avoid making overly positive remarks about Japan. The tumultuous relationship between the two countries left deep scars on the Chinese psyche.
Travelers might want to take a plentiful supply of business cards, since they will meet lots of people. Do learn some Chinese. It will break the ice and show interest in the host culture.
Especially for Women
China is a difficult place for anyone to conduct business. A woman may gain acceptance, but it will take time and will not be easy.
China is a male-dominated society. However, there are many women in business in China and some occupy high-ranking positions and important managerial jobs. One of the principles of the Chinese communist system is to work toward sexual equality.
Negotiating teams may have women members. Women may be used to decline unpopular proposals.
Businesswomen attend business dinners, but rarely bring their spouses.
Chinese women rarely smoke or drink. However, it is acceptable for Western women to do so moderately.