Putting Chinese business etiquette into practice

August 24, 2009
| By Yalin Song |
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Since 2000, U.S. exports to China have increased significantly, growing at a faster rate than any other country. From 2006 to 2008, U.S. exports to China increased 23 percent. Michigan’s total exports also experienced substantial growth, increasing 21 percent. This growth ranks Michigan the 14th overall state exporting to China.

The continued growth shows opportunities exist between Michigan and China, and understanding China business etiquette has never been so crucial. Here are some basic guidelines for business success while working with Chinese partners and potential customers.

Business cards

U.S. culture dictates a sometimes quick and informal exchange of business cards. While acceptable between U.S. businesses, it is not what the Chinese expect. Chinese people are taught to present business cards with two hands, thumb and forefinger on the top corners, with the text facing the recipient. As the recipient takes the card, the giver bows slightly to show respect. The recipient should receive the card in a similar manner. A handshake might be shared with anyone attending an event — but when a business card is presented, it is an indication that person is interested in a more meaningful exchange.

Business cards should be exchanged at the beginning of a meeting. Make sure you have an adequate supply. The Chinese appreciate it when one side of the business card is in Chinese. On accepting a business card from your Chinese colleagues, show your interest by glancing at the details of the card. Clarify information regarding the giver’s organization and role, or pronunciation of the name. Asking questions also is an important way to express interest and respect. Putting the card into your wallet or briefcase without reading it can be offensive to the Chinese.

Finally, after clarifications are made, treat the card respectfully — put it somewhere safe and in an orderly fashion. For example, if you are at a business meeting with more than one Chinese counterpart, place the cards in front of you on the table in the order of where they are seated. This shows respect and is also an excellent way to remember names.

If you are at a reception, don’t leave the card on a table, don’t hand it to someone else, and don’t toss it into a bag or pocket loaded with other items. What you do with the card after you receive it is a clue to the giver that indicates how you might regard him or her in the present and future.

Gift-giving

Gift-giving is another must-learn topic when working with internationals, especially with people from China. Indeed, gift-giving etiquette in today’s China comes from thousands of years of rituals that govern what to give, what color the wrapping should be, when to present,  how to “push” for acceptance, and so on.

Among the Chinese, it is customary to present foreign guests, visitors and business associates with small gifts or souvenirs, and it is considered polite to return the goodwill gesture. The first thing to remember is: Be sure to travel with enough gifts for everyone. Always wrap gifts, but do not use white or black paper — it symbolizes death. Red and gold are the best. Gifts should be presented with both hands, and to the most senior member of the host group.

The Chinese usually do not open gifts at the time they receive them. When you receive gifts from the Chinese, do not open them unless they request it. Don’t be surprised to receive a gift unwrapped. While the westernized Chinese normally wrap their gifts before presenting them to guests, many Chinese still don’t have the habit of gift wrapping. Never give a gift that would make it impossible for the Chinese to reciprocate — this would cause a loss of face and place them in a difficult position.

We all want great business relationships and long-term partnerships. Gift-giving is a great way to establish a long-term relationship and can pave the way to success. In other words, while giving a gift in return is not necessary, it provides an excellent opportunity for building a more rewarding and profitable relationship. Such opportunities should not be missed!

Always prepare extra gifts with a range of values for the following reasons: 1) last-minute added meetings on the agenda; 2) unplanned participants at the meeting; 3) surprise gifts from people you have just met.

Dressing and clothing

Although fashion is a moving target in China, older cultural values still influence formal exchanges. Conservative dress for men and women is the norm. It is best to err on the side of conservative and wear business suits rather than business casual attire. Be mindful to dress in traditional business colors of black, grey and blue.

Men should wear conservative suits and ties in subdued colors. Women should avoid high-heeled shoes, short skirts (no shorter than knee length) and sleeveless blouses. They should wear conservative suits or dresses; a blouse or other kind of top should have a high neckline. They should avoid colorful, loud pieces of clothing.

Many more topics and details can be brought to the table for Chinese business etiquette. Whether you are interested in working in an international field that is related to China or currently working with Chinese business partners, it is a good idea to learn about Chinese business etiquette. From hello to goodbye and cheers in between, one can make a lasting, positive impression.

Yalin Song works for Van Andel Global Trade Center, Grand Valley State University. She leads the ChinaLink services for the center, which offers Mandarin language training, culture consultation and general translation and China business trade missions. She can be reached at (616) 331-6811 or yalin_song@gvsu.edu

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