Educating yourself on the customs and etiquette in China is an important part of preparation for an enjoyable travel experience. China is the oldest continuous civilization on the planet encompassing more than 5000 years of history, and their customs and etiquette are steeped in tradition.
Although China has changed drastically in recent years, and the people there are very open to westerners, travelers still need to be aware of the basic acceptable manners and etiquette.
The ethical system in China is largely based on Confucianism, but has been influenced by Legalism, Marxism and Daoism. There is an emphasis on personal virtue, merit based promotion, and devotion to family and justice.
As a foreigner, allowances will be made for you, but it is advisable, particularly in a business environment, to remain alert to the behavior around you and not behave in an incompatible manner.
Etiquette In China: Making Friends
If you are fortunate enough to be invited into the home of a new friend in china, expect to be the center of attention, in a good way. Expect warm hospitality, with tea and snacks served immediately after arrival. This will likely be followed by a large meal. Bring small gifts to show your appreciation. Do not however bring chocolate, flowers or a clock or watch. The words to give a clock sound identical to take someone to their death. At mealtime, watch what your hosts do and copy them. Wait for them to tell you to eat before you begin.
. Greetings are formal and the oldest person is always greeted first.
. Handshakes are the most common form of greeting with foreigners.
. Many Chinese will look towards the ground when greeting someone.
. Address the person by an honorific title and their surname. If they want to move to a first-name basis, they will advise you which name to use.
. The Chinese have a terrific sense of humour. They can laugh at themselves most readily if they have a comfortable relationship with the other person. Be ready to laugh at yourself given the proper circumstances.
Gift Giving Etiquette
. In general, gifts are given at Chinese New Year, weddings, births and more recently (because of marketing), birthdays.
. The Chinese like food and a nice food basket will make a great gift.
. Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate the severing of the relationship.
. Do not give clocks, handkerchiefs or straw sandals as they are associated with funerals and death.
. Do not give flowers, as many Chinese associate these with funerals.
. Do not wrap gifts in white, blue or black paper.
. Four is an unlucky number so do not give four of anything. Eight is the luckiest number, so giving eight of something brings luck to the recipient.
. Always present gifts with two hands.
. Gifts are not opened when received.
. Gifts may be refused three times before they are accepted.
. The Chinese prefer to entertain in public places rather than in their homes, especially when entertaining foreigners.
. If you are invited to their house, consider it a great honour. If you must turn down such an honour, it is considered polite to explain the conflict in your schedule so that your actions are not taken as a slight.
. Arrive on time.
. Remove your shoes before entering the house.
. Bring a small gift to the hostess.
. Eat well to demonstrate that you are enjoying the food!
. Learn to use chopsticks.
. Wait to be told where to sit. The guest of honour will be given a seat facing the door.
. The host begins eating first.
. You should try everything that is offered to you.
. Never eat the last piece from the serving tray.
. Be observant to other peoples' needs.
. Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
. The host offers the first toast.
. Do not put bones in your bowl. Place them on the table or in a special bowl for that purpose.
. Hold the rice bowl close to your mouth while eating.
. Do not be offended if a Chinese person makes slurping or belching sounds; it merely indicates that they are enjoying their food.
. There are no strict rules about finishing all the food in your bowl.
Business Etiquette and Protocols
China has one of the world’s fastest growing industrial economies, and is playing a larger role in international business dealings than ever before. International companies doing business in China can gain a competitive advantage by familiarizing themselves with China’s unique cultural expectations for business attire, communication, gift giving, greeting ceremonies, and business meetings.
Formal dress is prevalent in Chinese business culture, with conservative business suits being the norm for both men and women. More informal dress, such as short sleeves and jeans, is appropriate on hotter days and at informal gatherings, but shorts should only be worn while exercising.
What to Wear?
. Business attire is conservative and unpretentious.
. Men should wear dark coloured, conservative business suits.
. Women should wear conservative business suits or dresses with a high neckline.
. Women should wear flat shoes or shoes with very low heels.
. Bright colours should be avoided.
Business cards are an important aspect of developing business relationships in China, and international businesspeople should bring an ample supply and expect to receive just as many as they give. It is prudent to print a double sided business card, with a Chinese translation on one side. Advice should always be sought when choosing which Chinese characters to use on business cards, since characters can carry positive or negative connotations. Business cards should be presented and received with two hands and a slight bow, with the words facing the recipient.
Business cards should be treated with absolute respect. Careless handling of business cards is perceived as disinterest in the relationship. Cards should be kept on the table during meetings, and should never be written on, folded, or tossed around.
. Business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction.
. Have one side of your business card translated into Chinese using simplified Chinese characters that are printed in gold ink since gold is an auspicious colour.
. Your business card should include your title. If your company is the oldest or largest in your country, that fact should be on your card as well.
. Hold the card in both hands when offering it, Chinese side facing the recipient.
. Examine a business card before putting it on the table next to you or in a business card case.
. Never write on someone's card unless so directed.
Business Meeting Etiquette
. Appointments are necessary and, if possible, should be made between one-to-two months in advance, preferably in writing.
. If you do not have a contact within the company, use an intermediary to arrange a formal introduction. Once the introduction has been made, you should provide the company with information about your company and what you want to accomplish at the meeting.
. You should arrive at meetings on time or slightly early. The Chinese view punctuality as a virtue. Arriving late is an insult and could negatively affect your relationship
. Pay great attention to the agenda as each Chinese participant has his or her own agenda that they will attempt to introduce.
. Send an agenda before the meeting so your Chinese colleagues have the chance to meet with any technical experts prior to the meeting. Discuss the agenda with your translator/intermediary prior to submission.
. Each participant will take an opportunity to dominate the floor for lengthy periods without appearing to say very much of anything that actually contributes to the meeting. Be patient and listen. There could be subtle messages being transmitted that would assist you in allaying fears of on-going association.
. Meetings require patience. Mobile phones ring frequently and conversations tend to be boisterous. Never ask the Chinese to turn off their mobile phones as this causes you both to lose face.
. Guests are generally escorted to their seats, which are in descending order of rank. Senior people generally sit opposite senior people from the other side.
. It is imperative that you bring your own interpreter, especially if you plan to discuss legal or extremely technical concepts as you can brief the interpreter prior to the meeting.
. Written material should be available in both English and Chinese, using simplified characters. Be very careful about what is written. Make absolutely certain that written translations are accurate and cannot be misinterpreted.
. Visual aids are useful in large meetings and should only be done with black type on white background. Colours have special meanings and if you are not careful, your colour choice could work against you.
. Presentations should be detailed and factual and focus on long-term benefits. Be prepared for the presentation to be a challenge.
. Only senior members of the negotiating team will speak. Designate the most senior person in your group as your spokesman for the introductory functions.
. Business negotiations occur at a slow pace.
. Be prepared for the agenda to become a jumping off point for other discussions.
. Chinese are non-confrontational. They will not overtly say 'no', they will say 'they will think about it' or 'they will see'.
. Chinese negotiations are process oriented. They want to determine if relationships can develop to a stage where both parties are comfortable doing business with the other.
. Decisions may take a long time, as they require careful review and consideration.
. Under no circumstances should you lose your temper or you will lose face and irrevocably damage your relationship.
. Do not use high-pressure tactics. You might find yourself outmaneuvered.
. Business is hierarchical. Decisions are unlikely to be made during the meetings you attend.
. The Chinese are shrewd negotiators.
. Your starting price should leave room for negotiation.
Gifts are an important part of Chinese business culture, and visitors should bring a large supply of gifts that are uniquely representative of their home country or company. Gifts are customarily given to each member of a delegation, with the most senior Chinese person receiving the first and most thoughtful gift. Other members of a Chinese delegation should receive gifts equal to those given to others of their rank or seniority, and always in descending order. It is not customary for gifts to be opened in public; however, Chinese international businesspeople may have become accustomed to the practice of opening the gift right away.
Gifts should not be too lavish; more emphasis is placed on the thought behind the gift than on the value. Gifts such as handkerchiefs, white flowers, clocks, and umbrellas should be avoided, as these are associated with death or funerals. Gifts should not be given in increments of four, since the pronunciation of this word in Chinese closely resembles the Chinese word for “death.”
Communication in China
Although a slight bow is the traditional Chinese greeting. Chinese business meetings usually begin with a handshake and a slight nod. As in greeting ceremonies, it is customary to address the most senior Chinese representative first in business meetings.
Family names are preceded by given names in China, and Chinese businesspeople prefer to be called by their title and last name rather than a more personal expression. Chinese businesspeople that often travel abroad may adopt an English first name, and may print their family name after their given name on business cards and correspondence.
Relationships & Communication
. The Chinese don't like doing business with companies they don't know, so working through an intermediary is crucial. This could be an individual or an organization who can make a formal introduction and vouch for the reliability of your company.
. Before arriving in China send materials (written in Chinese) that describe your company, its history, and literature about your products and services. The Chinese often use intermediaries to ask questions that they would prefer not to make directly.
. Business relationships are built formally after the Chinese get to know you.
. Be very patient. It takes a considerable amount of time and is bound up with enormous bureaucracy.
. The Chinese see foreigners as representatives of their company rather than as individuals.
. Rank is extremely important in business relationships and you must keep rank differences in mind when communicating.
. Gender bias is nonexistent in business.
. Never lose sight of the fact that communication is official, especially in dealing with someone of higher rank. Treating them too informally, especially in front of their peers, may well ruin a potential deal.
. The Chinese prefer face-to-face meetings rather than written or telephonic communication.
. Meals and social events are not the place for business discussions. There is a demarcation between business and socializing in China, so try to be careful not to intertwine the two.
The Chinese greeting ceremony is a unique and time-honored tradition that is vital in making a good first impression. Business travelers can expect to be greeted by several representatives from their company’s Chinese counterpart. The most senior representative will be first in line, and should be regarded and greeted before the others. The remaining representatives will be lined up in order of seniority, and should be greeted in that specific order. Visitors’ delegations should also be arranged in this manner, and each representative should greet their Chinese hosts in order quickly without spending too much time with each person.
Aside from greeting a visitor at the airport, greeting ceremonies are also commonly held at restaurants or other such venues. International visitors may be greeted by a large applause. If this happens, the custom is for the visitor to applaud in return and thank the host.
Here are some tips to keep in mind on your journey:
- Losing Face: A foreigner will lose face in the eyes of the Chinese if they express anger openly. Impatience is considered a very serious character flaw. Also, a Chinese person may laugh in order to save face when they do not completely understand what you are trying to communicate.
- Make sure you shake hands with those you meet, and a little longer than common in the west, with a respectful nod of the head
- When sightseeing, be sure to ask permission before taking photographs of people or the inside of a temple.
- Shopping: Haggling is okay in the street markets, but not in the shops.
- Tea Houses: the environment is tranquil and serene. Keep your voice to a hushed tone in order to not disturb the quite atmosphere.
- A surname precedes the personal name because traditionally the family or clan has been viewed as more important than the individual. People may also refer to each other using their occupational title, such as Mayor Li
- English speaking skills will vary greatly. Those who do speak English, even just a little may really enjoy attempting a conversation with you!
- Tibet: Avoid conversation regarding Tibet. Most Chinese believe that Tibet has been a part of Mainland China for centuries and will not appreciate a human rights debate.
Surprisingly Not Rude:
- Blowing your nose between your finger on the street.
- Spitting, although there has been some effort to limit this.
- Belching: indicates a sense of well-being.