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Doing Business in China? These Four Etiquette Tips Will Serve You Well

By Sina Gygax
Business Development Manager CSC Global Financial Markets
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Driven by foreign trade and heavy infrastructure investments over the last 40 years, China’s economic advances are impressive. China has developed the world’s longest high-speed train network, a vibrant digital sector, some of the largest cities in the world, and more.

For those looking to do business with China, a basic understanding of its history is helpful, but a deeper understanding of its culture paves a path to success. Sina Gygax, our business development expert, presents key insights to prepare you for a better business experience.

1. Meetings and dress code

When you first meet and greet your Chinese counterpart, a handshake and simple “ni hao” or “hello” is an appropriate way to start any conversation. Small talk is essential and relationship-building is required before diving into the main topic of conversation.

When visiting your counterpart, appropriate attire depends on the location. In general, wear a business suit when visiting professional service companies or state-owned enterprises. Casual attire is acceptable when meeting at consumer goods or technology companies. Initially, it may be best to dress conservatively and adjust accordingly for the future.

2. The concept of guanxi

Despite China’s advances, foreigners still encounter age-old traditions. One concept, guanxi, is embedded in Chinese business etiquette. It translates to “connections” or “relationship,” but its meaning goes beyond that. Guanxi denotes the interpersonal links and reciprocal obligations that come from one’s social network. Therefore, developing a strong network of trusted partners is key, especially when it comes to introductions and negotiations. Never underestimate the importance of relationship-building. Personal questions about your stay in China, or your family and children, is guanxi talk and a sign of interest aimed at strengthening the relationship. Trust is important and built over time.

3. WeChat and business cards

Although most international businesses in China use email, you may want to download WeChat on your mobile device. Used by a vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people, WeChat is preferred for both personal and business communication. It’s much more than a communication tool—in addition to instant messaging, users can buy train tickets, pay for groceries and convenience items, as well as coordinate daily tasks. Don’t be surprised if someone asks you to add him or her on WeChat by scanning a QR code.

Traditional business cards are still important in China and are usually exchanged after the initial handshake, introductions, and greetings. Make sure you present your business card with both hands, holding it out as if giving your host a gift. It will be received with respect, and you should show the same deference in return.

4. The idea of giving, saving, and losing face

The concept of giving, losing, or saving face is crucial if you plan to do business in China. Face is like a scorecard relating to respect and honor. Respect for people’s feelings, reputation, and dignity is critical to any encounter. Interestingly enough, face not only applies to individuals but also to corporations and entities. Flattering your counterpart gives them face, is appreciated, and promotes harmony in the workplace.

In conclusion, you gain an advantage when engaging with your Chinese counterpart if you:

  • Demonstrate appropriate introductions
  • Show respect and  convey a professional attitude at all times
  • Promote harmony when dealing with your Chinese counterparts
  • Save face and respect the hierarchy and reputation of your partners