Business Etiquette in China
Top Tips for Doing Business in China
The language and culture of a nation are inextricable. Culture influences language and language, in turn, influences culture. This happens in ways both obvious and almost imperceptible. Cultural context plays a major role in how language is used as well as how it develops, and non-native speakers can often find it difficult to translate particular words and phrases from one language into their native tongue without a thorough understanding of the cultural background from which it has arisen. The subtle factors which influence language can make a huge difference to international business interactions.
TJC Global understands that being fluent in a language also means being fluent in the subtleties and intricacies of the culture and business etiquette associated with it. To ensure that no embarrassing misunderstandings occur in a professional context, all our translators and interpreters are experts in the business culture and etiquette associated with the languages they work with. Read on to find out our top tips for doing business in China.
It is very important, for example, for Chinese people to ‘maintain face’ in everything they do. This is a concept which can be interpreted as maintaining honour, respect and a good reputation. Ways in which you can present or maintain ‘face’; in China include accepting invitations and attending meetings, giving appropriate gifts, appreciating cuisine, and demonstrating an interest in and an awareness of Chinese culture by using the correct forms of address or a knowledge of local customs. This will indicate a respect and sensitivity towards Chinese traditions. Acting irrationally, inappropriately or being unable to control your emotions (by crying or losing your temper) are signs of weakness and will lose you ‘face’ in China. Other ways to lose face include rejecting invitations, refusing gifts (more than the perfunctory three times) and not attending meetings. It is also very important never to insult or openly criticise someone in front of others; avoid unintentional criticism of others and don’t poke fun at people, even as a joke.
Bulding and maintaining harmonious relationships between oneself and others is a key element of Chinese society and culture. The responsibilities and obligations one has towards others are defined in a behavioural system called Confucianism. It lays out five key relationships structures: ruler and subject; husband and wife; parent and child; brothers and sisters, and friend and friend, and emphasises respect (particularly for older members of society) duty, loyalty, honour and sincerity. These tenets are also reflected in the strong emphasis on collectivism in Chinese culture. It is important not only to avoid embarrassing yourself in public, but to avoid embarrassing others. The self is often sacrificed for the good of the group: something which may be observed in business meetings.
- Do not arrange business meetings around the times of Chinese festivals.
- The relationship you develop with a person represents your relationship with the company he / she works for.
- Be aware of all favours done for you and be prepared to respond accordingly.
- In China, business relationships are personal relationships; establish a trusting personal relationship that demonstrates your respect for the other person.
- Don’t worry! Chinese people are aware of cultural differences between themselves and Westerners, and of course, will not expect you to be familiar with everything to do with Chinese culture. It is enough to show that you have made an effort and have a genuine interest in their customs and traditions. This way, you show respect to your partners which is one step towards building mutual trust and developing healthy business relationships.
Business Dress & Appearance
- Conservative suits for men with subtle colors are the norm.
- Subtle, neutral colors should be worn by both men and women.
- Jeans are not acceptable for business meetings.
Physical Gestures and Body Language
- Handshaking is the accepted greeting, with a light handshake encouraged.
- Chinese lower their eyes slightly as a sign of respect when they meet you for the first time. In public, eye contact or prolonged eye contact with others should be avoided as it is considered disrespectful and in busy, crowded environments, not keeping eye-contact with others is a way of maintaining privacy.
- Do not make big hand gestures.
- Bodily contact should be avoided
- Do not point when speaking.
- To remain non-confrontational, people do not say what they think in China. Non-verbal communication is key in Chinese culture and silence really does speak louder than words. This also means facial expression, posture and tone are some of the ways used to determine someones true feelings. Your own will also be heavily interpreted so it is best to maintain a passive expression, as the Chinese do, when someone else is speaking to avoid any misinterpretation of a frown, for example, in a business meeting or at any other time.
- Contacts should be made prior to your trip, often through an intermediary followed up by a formal introduction.
- Appointments are an absolute must for business dealings and should be made well in advance (ideally one to two months prior to the proposed date).
- Always arrive on time or early if you are the guest. Lateness is one way to damage a relationship or lose ‘face’.
- Introductions are formal. Use formal titles. The oldest person will be introduced first.
- During the meeting it is customary to address your Chinese colleagues with the title that signifies their status: “Professor Zhang” or “Mr. Li” with the name that follows the title being the surname and not a first name.
- It is important, during the course of the conversation, to be aware of the speech culture in China. Avoid saying “no”. Instead, you can respond with “I’ll look into that” or “I’ll see what I can do in this matter”, etc.
- When presenting your position at a meeting, speak slowly with short pauses between the sentences. It is worthwhile to allow your Chinese counterpart to understand your intentions properly.
- Business cards are important, especially in Chinese. On accepting a business card from your Chinese colleagues, show your interest by glancing at 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.
Cultural Awareness and Superstitions
China’s ethical system, Confucianism, involves respect for superiors, duty to family, loyalty to friends, sincerity and courtesy. Age brings increased respect and status. Working in China requires recognition of guanxi, or networks of dependent relationships. For example, gifts are given as a token of respect and allow individuals to build obligations between themselves and others who can assist them in China’s business and social world.
The Number Four: Considered very unlucky, as the word is pronounced similarly to the word for death.
The Number Eight: Very lucky, and any association with the number eight means lots of good luck, wealth, health and happiness.
The Number Six: Lucky, the word means things going successfully.
Red: Symbolic of wealth and success when used with products and services.
Gold and Yellow: Associated with success and power.
White and Black: Typically associated with funerals, so they are to be avoided.
- Gifts are important, although expensive gifts could be taken the wrong way.
- It is more acceptable to give gifts either in private or to a group as a whole to avoid embarrassment.
- The most acceptable gift is a banquet.
- Never give clocks as gift since they are associated with death.
- Flowers should also be avoided as they too, signify death to some Chinese people.
- Pay close attention to colours and numbers when gift giving: 4 of anything is unlucky while 8 is very lucky. Similarly, colours have specific meanings.
You should taste all the dishes you are offered as a courtesy.
Do not start to eat or drink prior to the host.
Never serve yourself a drink at the table; always fill your neighbour’s glass. This is his cue to fill yours.
You should not take the last bit of food on the serving plate, and always leave a little food on your own plate to indicate you are finished.
Chopsticks: At the banquet table, never stick your chopsticks into the rice standing up (a symbol used at funerals), and always lay them down parallel on the side of your plate when you are done. Never make an “X” with them or separate them on either side of the plate.
Feng Shui: Don’t move things around in a home or office. They may have been placed there with a purpose.
Chicken Heads: Kept at the business banquet table facing the host (positioning them to point at someone else on the table symbolizes that they will be put on fire).
What forms of interpretation can TJC Global provide?
Video / videoconference interpreting: (also Video Remote Interpreting available) TJC provide language interpreting services to support events such as business discussions, conferences, legal / court / arbitration / litigation, and all other online business interactions in industry during these challenging times.
Participants can communicate with one another via video or voice calls using laptops, smartphones, tablets etc. These can be recorded should you wish to take minutes. Our professionally qualified interpreters can join your online virtual meeting, event, or proceeding, for example, and interpret remotely in the language pairing you require, so as to facilitate smooth communication between all parties.
Telephone / teleconference interpreting is a practical way to bridge any language barriers. The interpreter is either located remotely (away from either party) or is with one of the parties. In both cases they deliver interpreting services through telephone conferencing.
Telephone interpretation is useful for clients who cannot travel to their counterparts’ country, but still wish, for example, to hold business discussions or to communicate progress updates. At TJC Global, we are very happy to provide you with professionally qualified interpreters around the world in almost any selected language combinations.
Simultaneous interpreting (also available with Video Remote Interpretation (VRI))
is used for international conferences, critical business discussions, seminars & symposiums. In this case, there are usually two to three interpreters situated in a booth, away from the audience, who take turns to interpret at high speed, changing over every 15-20 minutes to avoid fatigue.
The interpreters use headsets to listen to the message of the speaker and repeat it immediately (practically “simultaneously”) in the target language for the benefit of relevant audience members.
Consecutive interpreting (also available with Video Remote Interpretation (VRI)) is the most common type of interpreting. It is used for business discussions, negotiations, contract exchanges, commercial, legal, technical discussions, medical or court hearings or on site inspections. The interpreter listens to the speaker, often making notes, and delivers the meaning in the target language afterwards.
The interpreter may wait until a pause or the end, at which point they deliver a translation relatively quickly. Consecutive interpreting may also be used at conferences for panel discussions, Q&A sessions or private discussions between parties – at a stand or elsewhere.
Looking for translation or interpreting assistance ?
TJC Global provides specialist interpreting and translation services in a wide array of specialist fields. Whatever your requirement, we can find the right linguist to assist you. If your industry or project-type is not listed here, please contact us directly with your enquiry.
Our language specialists utilise their knowledge of subject-specific terminology to deliver precise, unambiguous translations whatever the context – enabling you to communicate effectively with the rest of the world. We are also able to adapt to almost any type of project.