The culture in China is vastly different from anywhere else in the world. One thing is for sure, though, when you're planning a business trip there, you'll definitely need to prepare. Etiquette is important everywhere, and the Chinese put heavy emphasis on manners, duty, and respect.
First and foremost, you must travel with the understanding that it will be expensive. Not only will you have to pay for the travel and hotel rooms, you'll need to print up special business cards and hire an interpreter. If you decide to bring gifts (which is expected should someone invite you into their home), you must bring enough for everyone present. Don't worry, you can bring candies from your home and most of the time this is sufficient.
Should you find yourself in a position where you're unsure how to react, the best thing you can do is simply remain calm and respectful. Respect for elders and those in positions of power is extremely important to the Chinese, so default to being nice and calm is always the best practice.
Brushing up on the "dos" and "do-nots" of Chinese culture and etiquette doesn't have to be hard though. We've put together the top 20 rules you should follow when going on a business meeting in China.
20 Greet The Eldest First
Seniority is important in Chinese culture. When being introduced to a group of people while visiting China, whether it's business partners or their friends and family, always greet the eldest person first. It's considered a sign of respect. Handshakes are becoming more and more popular in China, so don't be afraid to reach out, just don't be too forceful or pushy if they only want to politely nod as a greeting. It is also important to address people by their full titles, make good eye contact, and don't shake hands in an overly-aggressive fashion. Typically, they will line themselves up according to age, which leads us to our next rule.
19 In Group Introductions, Line Up According To Seniority
Chinese business men will line up according to rank and seniority, and you should do the same. If you hold a higher position than someone else who travelled with you, you will be greeted first, so position yourself in a way that makes it clear to everyone that they should start with you for introductions.
If someone holds a higher rank than you, or they are significantly older, let them go first. It may sound like a lot to remember, but if you all make a mental note of it before the introductions begin, it's not too hard. Think of the way you were raised to respect your elders, and multiply that by 5. That's how seriously the Chinese take respect for those with seniority and higher rank.
18 Applaud Yourself... Literally
When you arrive to an event or meeting and people applaud your entrance, it's expected that you will applaud along with them. In America, that may feel like you're patting yourself on the back or being self-centered, but in China, it's completely acceptable and normal. This doesn't just apply to big presentations or events, either. When being introduced to a fairly small to medium-sized group of Chinese business men, they may applaud you as if you were about to give a speech.
If you forget to applaud along with them, more than likely no one will be offended. But they surely will be happy if you remember to do it with them.
17 Shake Hands
Shaking hands wasn't always common in China, but it's becoming an increasingly popular greeting. Don't be shy to reach out your hand to shake with someone you're meeting. However, if they seem uncomfortable, or they simply nod or bow instead, just go with the flow. There's no need to push for a handshake if they would rather not touch hands. Many Chinese people are very conscientious when it comes to germs and hand hygiene, so it could be for a good reason. If they're feeling a little under the weather, or they suspect they might be around someone who is sick, they might not want to shake hands or be touched.
16 Use Appropriate Titles
Always use appropriate titles when greeting people in China. Similar to greeting people in order of their seniority, this is a sign of respect, and should be taken seriously. It's not too far off from American culture, though it extends further than the professional setting in China. According to EDiplomat.com, the best practice is to ".use family names and appropriate titles until specifically invited by your Chinese host or colleagues to use their given names." You should address the Chinese by Mr., Mrs., or Miss. Don't forget that married women keep their maiden name in China. You will need to address them with "Mrs." but do not assume that they have their husband's last name.
15 No Contact
This is true anywhere, really, but it applies even more in China. Unless someone reaches out toward you, you should avoid physical contact. Not only can be it be perceived as unprofessional, many Chinese people take their personal space seriously, and it would be considered rude to touch them without their explicit consent. Again, this is a general rule of thumb when conducting business meetings, no matter what country you're in. Just know that the Chinese, in particular, are not fond of physical contact. Something as simple as a touch on the arm may be perceived as rude or inappropriate.
14 Meals Are Not For Business
In some situations, such as job interviews or auditions, arriving early is the best practice, not for meals in China, however. This can be perceived as you being overly-eager and hungry. Once you arrive, you might note that business will not be discussed at the dinner table. Don't bring it up unless someone else does, and it's highly unlikely that they will.
Slurping and burping are completely fine, but be sure to leave a little food on your plate in between courses. Clearing every plate will also show that you're overly hungry and eager. Do not put bones or seeds in your rice bowl, just place them on the table.
13 Watch Where You Put Your Chopsticks
No one really thinks twice about placing their fork or spoon in an empty bowl or on the plate when you're done eating. In China, however, it's a totally different story.
According to China Highlights, "Under no circumstances should chopsticks be placed upright in your bowl. This symbolizes death." It's also understood that you should never tap the table or bowl with your chopsticks, as this is considered extremely rude. When you're done eating, simply place the chopsticks on the table or the chopstick rest if one was provided. Let's hope you learned how to use them before the big trip!
12 Do Not Open Gifts Upon Receiving Them
When presented with a gift, it's not necessarily rude to open it right then and there, but it would certainly be unexpected. It's customary in China to open gifts in private, once you're settled alone at home.
When giving a gift to someone else, present it with both hands. It is also understood that you either give a gift to everyone in the room or no one at all. You should avoid any flashy or over-the-top wrapping paper. Just a simple, modest wrapping will do. Remember to never gift any sharp objects like scissors or knives, as this represents "severing" relationships.
11 Have Special Business Cards Ready
Upon meeting with business people in China, business cards will be exchanged. Make sure you have special business cards ready with English on one side and Mandarin on the other. It's also important to remember to use "simplified" characters, as opposed to "classical" characters. The classical characters are commonly used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and aren't appropriate for China.
Taking the time to print out some business cards in their language shows that you arrived prepared and ready to adapt to fit their needs. English will not be spoken at meetings in China, which leads us to our next point.
10 Hire An Interpreter
You will need to hire an interpreter for your business meetings and dinners in China, as they won't be speaking any English. Even if they did, it would still be a smart move to bring your own interpreter. That duty does not fall on their shoulders, since you are the guest. Some Chinese people present may understand English without making it known and will stick to their guns about speaking in their native tongue. You can expect that the business meetings will be long and drawn out, often spanning out over the course of up to ten days. Get ready to pay an interpreter a pretty big bill.
9 Seating Is Important
The Chinese take respect of seniority seriously, as we've mentioned above. This extends all the way to the seating arrangements. In meetings, the host will sit directly to the left of the most important guest, and everyone will be arranged according to rank. Make sure you have these things planned out ahead of time. While you might not be able to know what the table looks like ahead of time, it's best to go over everyone's ranking prior to the meeting, so everyone knows where they will sit, no matter the shape of the table. You wouldn't want to be fumbling around playing musical chairs at the meeting.
8 Do Not Interrupt Moments Of Silence
During business meetings in China, you can expect there to be several moments of silence. In fact, many long moments. Don't interrupt these. It's unclear why these are so common, but we do know that it's expected that you just leave people be during this time. It's possible that they're trying to psych you out, or maybe they truly are just deep in thought over the topics being discussed. Just stick to yourself and wait for them to resume the conversation.
Remember not to twiddle your thumbs or give off any hint that you're impatient or bored. Just like everywhere else in the world, it's considered rude.
7 Contracts Are Not Binding
In China, contracts are merely considered drafts that are subject to change. They very well may agree to the conditions and sign the contract, only to turn around and want to negotiate some more. It has been common for people in China to conduct business without contracts, and they're known to want to negotiate hard for quite some time. Just when you think you're about to strike a deal, they'll want to change the terms. You better beef up on your negotiating skills prior to arriving because you'll surely put them to good use. Don't get frustrated, just understand that it's how things work there.
6 No Red Ink
Make sure you don't take a red pen with you to China. Writing in red ink is symbolic for severe criticism or protesting. This is especially true when writing someone's name, even your own. According to Vision Times, "In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink."
It's said that red ink is reserved for break up notes, letters informing others of a loved ones passing, or a curse for someone to die.
5 Be Punctual
Arriving to dinners or meetings "fashionably late" is not a thing in China. Obviously, if you're traveling for business, we doubt you would want to show up late anyway. But we wanted to make it a point to remind everyone that punctuality is extremely important to Chinese people. Like many other places in the world, being late is considered rude. Timeliness is a virtue, and showing up on time shows that you care about other people's schedules and do not put yourself above others. This extends to any tours or fun events you might attend while visiting as well. You don't want to leave a bad taste in their mouths for your company.
4 Say No To PDA
While we doubt you'll be taking your wife or girlfriend with you on a business trip, on the off-chance that you do, be sure you keep the PDA to a minimum, as in don't do it, at all. Remain completely professional and be sure you don't touch them too often or act too smitten around other people. It's considered poor manners, and it shows that you're not serious about your business. Even if you were just visiting for fun, keep things tame. Hand-holding should be just fine, but save the smooches, long gazes, and big hugs for the hotel room.
3 Do Not Say No
First of all, do not take a sip of your drink until you've toasted everyone at the table. Everyone around you will think you're rude for drinking alone. When drinking a toast, tap the table twice. If it's a formal event, stand up as you usually would.
Unless you are getting dangerously drunk, it's considered rude to refuse any drinks that you're offered. It's perfectly acceptable to do nothing more than slowly sip them, that way you don't get too trashed. Plus, it is highly unlikely that people will try to hand you drinks when you still have one in your hand.
2 No Pointing
The Chinese point with an open hand. It's considered very rude to point with your index finger, so try to avoid it at all costs. Grand arm and hand gestures should typically be avoided in general. They find it to be over-the-top and annoying. It should go without saying, but you don't want to use your chopsticks to point at people or things either.
On the topic of body language, watch where you put your feet. If you cross your legs, you want to make sure your feet aren't pointing toward anyone. Either keep your feet on the floor or point your crossed leg toward the wall.
1 Don't Take Things Personally
Above all, don't take things too personally while visiting. Unless you grew up in China, you likely won't understand all of the subtle things that go on, and at times, you may feel like you're disliked. This most likely isn't true, unless you gave them a reason to not like you.
They might not be as warm or welcoming as you're used to, depending on the environment you grew up in, but ultimately, it's just cultural differences. They never mean to offend or hurt your feelings. Especially when it comes to business trips, your meetings may seem curt and to the point, and that's just the way it is.