Emerging markets

Published on November 30th, 2012 | by Louise Ramsay

Chinese business etiquette

You’ve spotted a gap in the market in China and have meetings with potential clients in your diary. But do you know how to make the most of your meetings and negotiate effectively on price or push for an extra sale? Being aware of Chinese cultural mores and having knowledge of business etiquette is essential if you want to make your business trip to China a success.

Before the meeting

Prior to any meeting always send a clear agenda. This will help you to keep the flow of the meeting under control. Don’t deviate from your plans or spring any surprises. You may even wine and dine before the real business meeting. This is part of the ‘guan xi’ building process, or the business of making connections – deals are rarely closed on first meetings. Make sure you have done your homework before you meet with potential clients. The Chinese are meticulous planners and will know everything about you and your business.

Meeting and greeting

Punctuality is seen as a virtue in China, so be on time. Hosts are also expected to be in place before guests arrive. A meeting should start by shaking hands and a gentle nod of the head. Shake hands gently – being too vigorous will be mistaken as aggression.

Names are very important to the Chinese. Surnames come before first names. In a business meeting, call a Chinese person by the surname, followed by a title. For instance if Mr Chang is the director (Zong) of the company, you would call him Chang Zong.

The chief guest is usually seated to the mains host’s right, opposite the door. Try to avoid physical contact unless absolutely necessary – the Chinese aren’t keen on it. It’s excusable to guide a guest to his or her seat, but only by holding a cuff or sleeve. Certainly don’t put your arm around someone or slap them on the back. Control your body language and movements so to appear calm and collected. A formal, attentive posture shows you are in control and are worthy of respect.

Exchange business cards at an initial meeting. Try to have one side of your card translated into Chinese and printed in gold ink, as this is an auspicious colour. If you’re given a card, take time to read it before you stow it away. Just putting it straight into your wallet without doing so is considered extremely rude.

Talk the talk

Don’t launch straight into your business spiel, but make small-talk first – keep it general and avoid politics. Speak slowly and in short sentences and avoid slang or colloquialisms, it’s unlikely they’ll be understood. Don’t worry if your Chinese counterpart pauses while talking – this is an accepted way to show thoughtful consideration in Chinese culture.

Never interrupt and don’t put anyone on the spot, make sure that there’s a way out so your counterpart can save face. If you are using an interpreter, make sure he or she understands any technical jargon and always speak to the host, not the translator.

If your Chinese counterpart says ‘yes’, don’t take this literally. The Chinese 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. It’s also important that you don’t actually say ‘no’ to anything, but 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’.

The nitty gritty

The Chinese approach meetings differently to Westerners. We might start with minor or side issues then work our way up to the core issue. The Chinese prefer to do things the other way around, so once small talk is done, get down to your main business points.

One common strategy for Chinese negotiators is to start out being quiet and deferential. This is designed to present themselves as vulnerable and weak. As the ‘stronger’ one, you will be expected to help them negotiate concessions.

It’s important to be patient and never show frustration or anger. Keep your feelings in check and don’t let them show in your face. If the Chinese see you are uncomfortable, they will exploit the weakness. Decisions won’t be made quickly either because there is a genuine lack of urgency, or because meetings are taking place simultaneously with competitors, or because your potential clients aren’t confident enough.

Chinese people tend not to say what is on their minds in public, but they will be direct and straightforward in a one-on-one situation. If you want to know what’s really going on, which will help you to clinch the deal, expect to take people aside and talk with them privately.

Colour code

White is the colour of mourning, so avoid it, not just in what you wear, but in notepads, pens and anything else you take to the meeting. Instead, opt for red, which suggests power, prosperity and authority, and is the preferred colour in China. Also, while you may find it abhorrent, 350 million people in China smoke – consuming an incredible 1.8 trillion cigarettes each year. That’s a third of cigarettes smoked worldwide. Most Chinese, particularly men, think smoking is the right thing to do in business, so let them do it.

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