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When learning Chinese language and culture you can not avoid the head ache about which behavior is acceptable and which is not in China. This article sums up the most important things you need to know to have a smooth start. This article nevertheless is of general nature, since there is a growing melting pot of cultures through globalization.
A soft handshake is rather considered polite than a sign of lack of confidence in China. You can expect to be saluted with a handshake instead of the traditional bow these days.
Your business card should be bilingual, one side in English, the other in Chinese. Hand your business card over to your partner using both hands, otherwise it is considered impolite. When you receive a business card, never just put it in your pocket. Keep in mind that when reading a business card the last name comes first. The profession of a person is often used as a title e.g. Doctor Wu or Teacher Feng.
Conversation and Smalltalk
Smalltalk in China are more private and intimate than in western society, you might talk about things with your partner, which do not quite fit into what is considered a small talk, topics such as marital status, income, age or other family related topics. You should deal with those questions with ease, they are not meant to invade your privacy.
Chinese people like to get to know each other before they deal with serious matters. In China a business deal always starts with a long process of getting to know each other small talk. Every business meeting would usually start with a 15 minutes small talk. Take your time to build trust and a firm relationship.
Educate yourself about certain topics in China and avoid questions or topics that express criticism about China. Chinese people are proud of their country and do not like to discuss about uncomfortable matters regarding their country or government.
Chinese people are more subtle in letting you know what they wish or wish not to talk about, you will rarely have a Chinese person frankly expressing their opinion or being straight-forward with you. It is usually more important for Chinese people to avoid embarrassing each other than saying the truth or mentioning some facts, even if this is the reality of what is going on. The priority in a conversation, especially in a meeting or more important gatherings is the preservation of harmony and making sure everybody at the table is comfortable.
When talking, do not show that you are getting impatient and avoid raising your voice to highlight something. Because Chinese is a tone language such behavior can be easily misunderstood. If a Chinese is saying “Yes” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is agreeing with you, it simply means that what you said has been understood. As described above, this is for the sake of harmony.
There is a strong emphasis on hierarchy in Asia, whether it is Japan, Thailand or China. Just when you enter a room, you can already read the hierarchy in a place. The person with highest rank would usually enter the conference room first. The person with the highest rank is usually passive during business negotiations and interferes when necessary. Sometimes the person in charge might not participate in the meeting at all. It can be a strategy used in a negotiation to avoid being forced into the decision-making process by the foreign business partner. People in Asia love to wait when it comes to negotiations, a smart move requires patience and consideration.
When giving presents, the person of the highest rank gets a more expensive present than people of lower rank. If you have brought a present for a group of people e.g. in a company, the person with the highest rank gets the present.
As mentioned above, people in Asia love to wait sometimes. Don’t get insecure or unsettled if people take a long break in between words. Instead, try to feel it out without the need for words. Decision making in China is slow and quiet, use the silence and time to your advantage. When it comes to deals, especially contracts : A contract in China is like a growing tree that needs to be taking care of, it is not a fixated promise but a start of a growing relationship that is very dynamic and can have different outcomes. Do not expect every agreement to last forever or not to be re-negotiated.
Chinese people have different standards for distance when speaking to each other. People avoid close body contact with strangers. Do not use too many gestures when talking or point with your finger at others. When it comes to face expression and body language, people in asia tend to be more minimalistic and monotone.
Like with all the things mentioned above, time is not something that is absolutely dealt differently with than in the west. However, traditionally chinese people don’t think of time in linear terms. People not always do one thing after another, sometimes the real work starts at the end of the day. Certain things are dealt with at the same time while dealing with something else.
People in China have many superstitious beliefs, avoid embarrassing yourself by doing things that are taboo in China. The number four sounds like “death” in China, this is why sometimes you will find elevators not having a fourth floor. Red is a colour of fortune in China, people buying presents or giving money tend to choose the red color for an envelope or package.