Chinese etiquette for business travelers

Professional etiquette and understanding different cultures is essential in the business world.


In China, there is an established system of ethics, morals, hierarchy, and behaviour which sets the rules for dealing with people and establishing each person's place in society: a system that should be followed closely, especially by foreigners.


One of the key concepts to understanding Chinese culture is that of mianzi or face. Losing face, saving face, and giving face is very important. Politeness and humility should always be front of mind when engaging with the Chinese, who are not too fond of doing business with strangers and will often use intermediaries.


During introductions, stand up and offer a firm handshake while making eye contact. Some Chinese may nod or slightly bow. The exchange of business cards is a formal tradition and provides access to one’s identity in a country where the individual is deemed less important than the group. This is also why the translation should be perfect. Present and receive the card face up with both hands, followed with the standard "pleased to meet you”, or ni hao in Mandarin. Take a few moments to read the card then place it on the table in front of you with care.


Gestures to avoid during your meeting include whistling, finger snapping, and showing the soles of your shoes. Always use an open hand and never point a finger. The Chinese do not like to be touched, particularly by strangers. However, don’t be alarmed at how close they may stand next to you in conversation. Do not hug, back pat or put an arm around someone's shoulder.


China is famous for its banquets, and entertaining guests is an important way of establishing guanxi: the relationships between people that form the glue of society. Accept your host’s invitation and follow their lead throughout the festivities. There are no firm rules regarding dinner conversation. Depending on the closeness of the relationship, business may or may not be discussed.


Sample all of the dishes on offer and make sure not to place your chopsticks standing up in the rice, as this symbolizes death. Toasting during banquets is popular. Wait for your drink to be poured and your turn to toast, returning each one given in your honor. Safe topics include friendship, pledges for cooperation, mutual benefit, and the desire to reciprocate the hospitality. The most common expression for toasting is gan bei, meaning "dry cup" or bottoms up.


Understanding and following these Chinese etiquette basics will help to build rapport and leave a good impression. As Confucius said: “He that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools."


About Anya Zhang

Anya Zhang is Regional Security Manager (China) at International SOS and Control Risks. Based in Dubai, Anya supports the growth of the Chinese security business in the Middle East and Africa. Anya is a Chinese national, fluent in Mandarin, Sichuanese, and English.

Previously, Anya served China Police for 12 years and worked in the Sichuan Provincial Police Department, as well as with the United Nations in Kosovo and South Sudan.



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