Deeply rooted in Chinese society is the need to belong and conform to a unit, whether the family, a political party or an organization. The family is the focus of life for most Chinese. Age and rank are highly respected. To be successful in your relationships in China, it is imperative to play by the rules of the Chinese social paradigm. Understanding the role of guanxi (connections) and mianzi (saving face), two of the most important social values in China, will help you know what to expect in your relationships with the Chinese.
The idea of shame, usually expressed as ‘face,’ could be loosely defined as a loss of status or self-respect, similar to the western concept of ‘losing face.’ Never insult, embarrass, shame, yell at or otherwise demean a Chinese person. Any criticism should be delivered privately, discreetly and tactfully. It is of utmost importance to the Chinese to never cause another to look down on you, to never look ignorant or incompetent, to always be completely respectable and respected. Direct confrontation and challenge is not the Chinese way and will deeply offend and humiliate, no matter how simple the issue is.
Throughout much of Chinese history, the fundamental glue that has held the society together is the concept of guanxi, relationships between people. Guanxi signifies a relational system based on repaying favors and taking care of one’s friends, and it is the backbone of how many Chinese relationships function. If you have guanxi with an individual, they will do what they can to take care of you and the same is expected of you.
Another important concept in Chinese culture is Keqi. Keqi not only means considerate, polite, and well-mannered, but also represents humbleness and modesty. It is impolite to be arrogant and brag about oneself or one’s inner circle. The Chinese seldom express their opinions directly, nor do they choose to show their emotions in public.
Address a person using his or her family name only, such as Mr. Chen or Ms. Hsu. The Chinese family name comes first and is usually one syllable. A one or a two-syllable given name follows the family name. For example, in the case of Teng Peinian, Teng is the family name and Peinian is the given name. In some instances, Westernized Chinese might reverse their names when visiting and sending correspondence abroad. Therefore, it is always a good idea to ask a native speaker which name is the family name.
For business purposes, it is traditionally acceptable to call a Chinese person by the surname, together with a title, such as Director Wang or Chairman Li. Avoid using someone’s given name unless you have known him or her for a long period of time. Formality is a sign of respect, and it is advisable to clarify how you will address someone very early in a relationship, generally during your first meeting. Do not try to become too friendly too soon, and do not insist that your Chinese counterparts address you by your given name. The American pattern of quick informality should be resisted.
The Chinese way of greeting is a nod or slight bow. However, when interacting with Westerners, Chinese usually shake hands. Bear in mind that a soft handshake and a lack of eye contact do not necessarily indicate timidity. It only implies that the person is not accustomed to the firm handshakes commonly used in the West.
In China, it is assumed that the first person to enter the room is the head of the group. Americans should observe this convention so as not to confuse the Chinese. Important guests are usually escorted to their seats. If the meeting room has a large central table, the principal guest is likely to be seated directly opposite the principal host.
When exchanging business cards, hold out your card using both hands with the writing facing the recipient. Cards should always be exchanged individually (one-on-one). Never toss or “deal” your business card across the table, as this is considered extremely rude. Receive a business card with both hands and scan it immediately for vital information. Then lay the card in front of you on the table. It is demeaning to put someone’s card directly into your pocket without looking at it first.
Meetings begin with small talk. Resist the temptation to get down to business right away. Also, avoid telling American-style jokes, because jokes sometimes do not translate across cultures and can cause confusion or hurt feelings.
When inviting the Chinese to a party, serve a meal rather than snacks and drinks. When invited for dinner, it is considered proper etiquette to sample every dish served. Your host may serve some food for you, and it is nice to reciprocate, if you feel comfortable doing so. Always leave something on your plate at the end of the meal or your host might think that you are still hungry.
It is appropriate to bring a gift, particularly something representative of your town or region, to a business meeting or social event. Gifts indicate that you are interested in building a relationship. A gift should always be wrapped, but avoid plain black or white paper because these are the colors of mourning. Present the gift with both hands as a sign of courtesy and always mention that this is only a small token of appreciation. Do not expect your gift to be opened in your presence. This indicates that it is the thought that counts more than the material value. Never give a clock, handkerchief, umbrella or white flowers, specifically chrysanthemums, as a gift, as all of these signify tears and/or death. Lucky numbers are 6 and 8 (especially in a series, such as 66 or 888). An unlucky number is 4.
- Avoid the subjects of politics and religion. Good topics: Chinese food, sports or places one should visit.
- If a Chinese person gives you a compliment, it is polite to deny it graciously. Modesty is highly valued in China.
- The Chinese point at objects with an open hand instead of the index finger. Beckoning to someone is done with a palm facing down. Avoid beckoning with your index finger facing up.
- Do not try too hard to “go Chinese.” Chinese do not expect you to know all of their etiquette, and they make allowances for foreigners. Keep the above guidelines in mind, but above all, be yourself.
- Do learn a few words of Chinese. This shows an interest in your host’s language and culture. It also is a very good icebreaker.