China is well known for its unique business environment and culture. For many western businessmen and women looking to make the most of this booming economy, these cultural business barriers can stop a company or individual reaching their full potential in the Chinese marketplace.
After working in China for many years, it is clear to me that a firm grasp of the differences between Chinese and western business etiquette and culture can be invaluable in building business contacts.
1. It’s not what you know
Don’t underestimate the importance of guanxi, the network of connections that allows things to get done. Thousands of years of family-oriented culture, coupled with more recent periods of shortages where you needed good connections to get essential products, has resulted in an enduring concept of guanxi.
2. Show respect
More so than in the West, showing repect -or Mianzi-is all-important. You need to know and use the correct form of address during greetings, meals, drinks or conversations. If you’re asked “Don’t you find the pollution in China terrible?” a truthful but respectful response could be “Well, it’s bad, but given China’s fast economic growth, it’s understandable”.
3. Eat well
Expect to be taken out to eat, where ordering expensive and rare dishes is the done thing. Sea Cucumber, a type of mollusc, which induces retching in many Westerners, often features. These banquets make the most out of your host’s entertainment budget, but more importantly are used to show respect to the guest. Don’t refuse food because it looks disgusting. You can avoid any undesirable delicacies by listing some allergies before your hosts order food or perhaps by saying your stomach isn’t accustomed to certain foods. Drinks flow freely and simple toasts include “wo jing ni” (I show you respect), or “gan bei”(literally, ‘dry your glass’) after which you may be expected to do so.
4. Singing for your supper
Karaoke is increasingly popular so expect to be shown into a large specially fitted lounge for the private use of your group. Make sure you have a few old hits up your sleeve to impress your hosts. Well known western hits such as Bon Jovi, Sinatra and the Spice Girls often appear on electronic Karaoke lists.
5. Learn the Lingo
Learning a few simple greetings and more importantly, how to pronounce names and titles, is invaluable preparation. For example, being able to greet “Director Xiao” in Mandarin as “Xiao Zong” (Shee-ow Dzong) will get you some credit and is significantly better than not using his title and mispronouncing his name. Equally, street signs and company names will often use Pinyin, where Chinese words are transliterated in the roman alphabet, so knowing how to pronounce Qs, Xs, Zs and Cs will be of considerable help.
6. Using an interpreter
Ensure you speak in short, clear sentences and use the most common version of a word (say “company” rather than “firm”). Most importantly, keep eye contact with the person you’re communicating with, rather than the interpreter. If you’re without an interpreter, avoid spending too much time talking directly with people in lower positions just because they speak better English.
7. Think local
Getting both yourself and your company a Chinese name are a priority. The most common way is by combining the desire for a similar sound with the need for an auspicious or strong set of characters. A Chinese website or simple Chinese brochures will make you and your company even more approachable.
8. Be sensitive
We’re not suggesting you need to commend the Great Leap Forward. But aim to avoid sensitive issues, such as Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen, China’s human rights record and Falun Gong. Chinese in general are very patriotic, and highlighting any cracks in the system, however small, is not the done thing.
9. Do your homework
There aren’t huge numbers of scam related horror stories, but some businesses definitely have been taken for a ride. The pace of opening up reforms, the speed of development and the scale on which internationalisation is taking place means corners may have been cut. If it looks too good to be true, it may well be. As with any new trading partner, make sure you check creditworthiness and background.
10. Take a long-term view
It takes hard work, dedication and an occasional shifting of the goalposts to nurture a fruitful relationship with a Chinese company. Be self-aware and realistic, and remember that today’s banquets, karaoke and delayed signing of contracts could be the turning point for a profitable business relationship in the future.