A walk through Chinese culture and business etiquette

Home to the world’s second largest economy, 20% of the world’s population, a burgeoning middle class, and an economic growth rate that has reached at least the high single-digits for more than the last decade, there’s little argument that China is open for business. While the modern business world has, in many ways, substituted face to face interaction for remote communication, there still comes a point in every business relationship when an actual in-person meeting is necessary. When this point is finally reached, there’s a good chance that the participating sides, especially if they call different continents home, will be desperately trying to brush up on the cultural customs of the opposing side to avoid moments of awkward silence and embarrassment. Although Chinese merchants have been conducting business with the West for thousands of years, Chinese-American and Chinese- European ventures tend to be always at high risk for potential malpractice.

On the surface, though they may have different names, many of the base concepts of business etiquette remain the same. The concept of “guanxi” applies to relationships between people, which often involves the idea of asking for and owing favors- a principle not unlike the Western notion of “networking.” Westerners may want to assure that everyone in a company/venture is “on the same page” and “working synergistically,” but for the Chinese, it is an issue of harmony and group consensus. Finally, though it may take a stronger tone and deeper meaning in China, the idea of “mianzi” (literally meaning ”face”) is similar to the idea of respect for others, their position within the organization, and the crucial importance of maintaining harmony in the workplace.

Albeit, these perceived similarities are only superficial. In China, these basic concepts are not restricted to workplace etiquette, but instead pervade into virtually every aspect of life. “Mianzi” and group consensus have bred loyalty and obedience to the point where employees ask for input from superiors during stages of any assigned project. While ubiquitous in Western business, the idea of answering a question, inquiry, or invitation by directly saying only “No” is insulting in China, as it can cause a loss of face by positing a complete negation to the inquiry. Accordingly, it is customary that most negative answers will be given in the least harsh terms possible. Even small, introductory gestures, such as the presentation of business cards follow a distinct protocol as they are considered as an extension of a person, their identity and, therefore, constitute a representation of face.

Suffice it to say that, when meeting foreign business associates, you want to make the best first impression and leave a positive lasting impression. For a novice business-traveler in China, this can be challenging, especially considering that there is no social/workplace divide and virtually every action is associated with how it relates to age-old local cultural customs. While perfect adherence is neither expected nor demanded from a foreign visitor, it is elected that the other party or individual will exhibit respect for the local customs.