With China now Australia’s largest trading partner it’s vital to have an understanding of some of the different social norms surrounding interaction in the Chinese business world.
There are certain broad rules for conducting business in Australia – being punctual, dressing smartly and keeping your phone away in meetings – but business etiquette is taken much more seriously in China, and getting it wrong can cause significant offence.
After graduating from Harvard’s MBA program in 2012 and completing a diploma at a Swiss finishing school, Ho decided to bring lessons in “savoir-vivre”, encompassing etiquette and manners, to China.
“It is important for foreigners to understand that Chinese culture as a collective tends to be highly sensitive to what others do, therefore it is critical as a foreigner to understand local etiquette and protocol to do business successfully,” says Ho.
“Specifically, Chinese culture and communication is indirect with the desire not to offend. Answers cannot be forced, yes may mean yes, but yes may also mean not wanting to say no. The best way to understand what your Chinese partner is really thinking is to communicate through your assistants or staff in the days after the meeting. This is very different from European (especially American and French) cultures where communication is more direct and forceful.”
She says the need to open up etiquette courses to foreigners came after receiving an email from a senior executive at Cisco who wanted to further her understanding Chinese etiquette when interacting with her local colleagues.
She shares two of the biggest etiquette mistakes that can turn your Chinese counterparts off when doing business.
Not knowing how to present and accept business cards
The first cultural and business faux pas that foreigners make in China (and in East Asia generally) are to do with business cards -– either forgetting to carry them, not carrying enough (running out quickly), or giving them out incorrectly. In the West, unless at the start of a formal business meeting, it is viewed as very forward to stuff your business card into somebody’s face the second you see them. But in China, it is imperative that you do so. Chinese like as much context as possible, they want to know who they are speaking to (company, title, position, office address) before they start speaking to them. When travelling to China, bring plenty of extra business cards and have them handy upon meeting people in business and social situations.
The way to correctly present your business card is equally important. You should have a Chinese language side, [so] present either the English or Chinese side depending on the language the receiver can read, and present the text from the point of view of the receiver so that he can read it easily without turning it around. Etiquette is about considering things from other people’s perspective.
A business card you receive from another is an extension of his person and should therefore be handled with respect. Don’t play with someone’s card (no flicking, sweeping, or folding) and don’t put it in your back trouser pocket (the equivalent of sitting on someone’s face). You should present and receive cards with both hands, and upon receipt inspect it carefully. You may even read out loud the address or make some polite observation (‘Ah, you are located on such and such a street’ or ‘So many office locations!’). If you are sitting down at a meeting table, lay out all the business cards of those you are meeting in a row, preferably in the order in which they are sitting facing you. This allows you to refer to people’s names (Chinese names can be difficult for foreigners to remember!).
Addressing people incorrectly
Don’t get off on the wrong foot by not knowing how to address people correctly.
Ho says knowing the hierarchy and who’s on top is absolutely essential, so you can “greet the most senior person first and then work your way down”.
Foreigners are often confused by the traditional three character Chinese names and subsequently at a loss on how to address Chinese friends. For example, if someone’s name is He Peirong, that means the surname is He and the first name is Peirong.
Gender is not always obvious from a name, so if Wang Peirong is a woman then she should be called Ms. Wang; if a man then Mr. Wang. An informal address would be just to call him/her Peirong, but only when you have achieved a level of personal friendship.
The safe way to address anyone important is zong (meaning manager or president) such as ‘Wang zong,’ or laoshi (meaning teacher but is also a sign of respect for elders or experts in a field) for example ‘Wang laoshi.’
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