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Business Etiquette In China

Busy street in China

Securing a business deal from a Chinese company is not an easy task. Business culture in China is generally untrusting of American companies, meaning it’s a challenge to even get a foot in the door, let along agreeing to and executing a contract.

By respecting Chinese culture and values, you can start to break down the reservations a Chinese business might have and work towards building a professional relationship that leads to business.

Dress Conservatively

Business in China is largely conservative. Plan to dress accordingly.

For men, darker suits are a must, with grey or black being the best options. Generally, pair this with a simple patterned or solid color tie. Occasionally, an open collar is acceptable, but it is better to err on the side of caution.

For women, it is particularly important to dress conservatively. Revealing too much of any type of skin is heavily discouraged in Chinese culture. Skirts and professional dresses are fine, but suits are generally better. Women should also avoid wearing heels, as this is typically frowned upon in a Chinese office.

Business Takes Time

Securing business with a Chinese company is not a simple task. Chinese companies can be cautious when dealing with American businesses and can use just about any reason to refuse to work with someone. It is important to invest in a meaningful relationship with the business first before attempting to make a deal.

Odds are, it will be incredibly difficult to even get a meeting with a Chinese business unless you can get a referral from a source they already trust. If you don’t, do everything you can to expose yourself to the business, including sending Chinese-translated material to them.

Once you begin to establish reliability for your business, you can finally start to work on a professional relationship leading towards a deal. Even after this point, it is important to maintain a high level of care for the relationship. If they no longer trust your company, they will find ways to end the negotiations.

The Concept Of Saving Face

Chinese culture puts an emphasis on respect and reputation. Therefore, public embarrassment is avoided at all costs. Always keep a look out for potentially embarrassing situations for you or your host and do everything you can to avoid them.

Do not openly criticize your host or challenge something they say or do. Doing so makes them look bad in front of others which hurts both their reputation and your own.

At The Meeting

When you’re meeting for business in China, punctuality is key. Arrive on time, but don’t rush your hosts, either. There are traditions that will almost always be followed, so you’ll want to be diligent about adhering to the norms of the hosting company.


With their emphasis on seniority, the Chinese will assume whoever leads your group into the room is your spokesperson, meaning they will most likely deal directly with them. They will also introduce and seat themselves based on seniority, so it is best to line up accordingly before entering the meeting.

You will likely exchange business cards before the meeting. Come prepared with enough business cards for everyone in the room. Ideally, have your card translated into simplified Chinese on one side and present that side to the individual with both hands.

When you receive a business card, examine it politely and then put it into a case or portfolio. Do not put the business card in your pocket because this is seen as disrespectful.

When it finally comes to sitting down, you’ll almost always have a designated spot at the table. If you are not guided to your seat, there will probably be a card with your name on it. The seating is based on your position in the organization and is considered incredibly important by the Chinese.

Know What You'll Need

For any document you plan to use during the meeting, have it translated into simplified Chinese and bring multiple copies (usually enough for everyone in the room).

If you know you’ll need anything special for your presentation, make a request for it when you first schedule the meeting. Meetings start on time, and having to delay for additional setup sets a bad tone.

You should also plan on bringing your own translator. Most business in China is done in Chinese, even if there are English speakers on both sides. While you can request a translator from the company, they will be less familiar with your business model and sales pitch, which creates plenty of opportunity for unintended interpretations.

Prepare For Long Meetings

Business in China is not as quick as in the United States. Decisions are given a significant amount of consideration and many, many different points are evaluated. Meetings can take hours and might even span multiple days.

Make sure everyone who is going to speak is well-prepared, and also make sure that they have a legitimate reason to speak. The Chinese will view anyone who contributes to the meeting as having some importance to the meeting itself, whether it’s a higher position in the organization or some form of specialty.

Gift Giving

Giving a gift to your host is an incredibly delicate process during Chinese business deals. Getting it right can provide a significant boost to your relationships with important people at the business, but getting it wrong could ruin an otherwise good deal.

Know What Is Acceptable To Give

When choosing a gift, make sure to take Chinese culture into consideration. Some gifts should never be given, as they might represent something unexpected. One of the most common examples of this is a clock, which represents death in China.If you’re unsure about what gifts to give, you can check with a contact person at the business, if you have one. Otherwise, small, but nice office supplies, like pens or desk decorations are usually safe options.

Who To Give A Gift To

Ideally, you should have a gift for everyone you interact with during the business deal. If possible, provide gifts based on the individuals role in the organization, with higher level executives getting more valuable gifts.

Odds are the individual will initially refuse the gift, sometimes multiple times. This is a show of modesty, so you should continue to insist.

As a general rule, always give and receive gifts with both hands.

If you’re giving a large group gift, have the senior most member of your team provide the gift to the senior most member of the Chinese delegation.

Dining And Entertainment

When you do business in China, you’ll often be treated to entertainment outside of the meeting. While these are generally more laidback, they are still important towards the ultimate end of creating a business relationship, so you should be incredibly careful to be as respectful of the traditions as possible.

Understand Cultural Norms

Slurping food and belching are generally considered impolite in the United States, but the opposite is true in China. Slurping noodles and soup or belching during a meal are used to indicate that the meal is good.

You’ll also want to be careful about how much you eat. Whereas leaving food uneaten in the US is considered wasteful, an empty plate in China is an indication to the host that you have not been fed well enough. At best, this is an invitation for more food. At worst, it is an insult to the host. Instead, sample a little of everything you are offered, but leave at least some on your plate.

Do Not Discuss Business

While this is still considered part of the business negotiations, do not attempt to discuss business with the host during a banquet or other form of entertainment. The purpose of these events is to establish a relationship and see if the host would like to have any professional connection to your business.

If the host begins to discuss business, you may follow his lead, but you should never initiate the conversation.

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