If your country is planning business travel in mainland China, there's a lot to know about cultural norms and business practices that are unique to Chinese culture. Here are some tips to pass along to your travelers for navigating business relationships in this unique country:
Know before you go: Important Chinese cultural concepts
China's long and storied cultural history has its roots in Confucian principles. Here are four intertwined concepts to get acquainted with before business travel to China:
Guanxi loosely means relationships. It represents the reality that most things in China get done through influential relationships and social networks, and it depends upon who you know and those people's obligations to you. Cultivating guanxi is very important for business relationships in China.
Mianzi, or "face," is another very powerful cultural norm in China. Saving face and giving face are always taken into consideration – in a business context, this means avoiding putting someone on the spot, losing your temper, behaving arrogantly or failing to be respectful. All could cause you to lose face in a business meeting.
Reciprocity ties in with guanxi – it's the necessity of reciprocating favors, and it's vital in Chinese culture.
Li: Surface harmony
Li means to maintain harmony through polite behavior, so you can see how it is tied to mianzi, or face. One example of disturbing surface harmony is if a boss yells at one employee in front of the others. These are things that should be done behind closed doors to avoid loss of face.
Understanding inner and outer circles
For the most part, the above principles traditionally only apply to the inner circle: one's friends, family and colleagues. Unlike in the U.S., the Chinese don't see the point of going out of one's way for strangers – the outer circle. For example, bumping into someone in the street does not often necessitate an apology as it would in the U.S.
Greetings in China are pretty standard: They include a firm handshake, just as they do in American culture. But just like international travel in other countries, there are some things to know about presenting gifts and business cards.
When you give a business card, do so with two hands. In the U.S., we often give business cards casually and almost as an afterthought. In China, they should be presented, rather than merely handed out. When you receive a business card, bow slightly – from the shoulders, not waist – and study it for a moment. Even if it is in Mandarin and you can't read it, this shows that you are acknowledging the other person's importance. Additionally, a high quality business card is important, and you'll be especially impressive if you print one side in Mandarin – provided you have an expert translator – though this isn't a must. People who frequently engage in business travel to China often choose a Mandarin name, just as Chinese business travelers often choose a name that is easy to pronounce in English when traveling here.
Gifts should be presented in the same way – with both hands – at the first meeting. A great gift is something from your home city or state, or high-quality office merchandise with the company logo. Cognac, whiskey or a fine wine make great presents as well. Wrap the gifts in red or gold, which are positive colors, rather than black or white, which signifies death.
The main thing to know about business meetings in China is that one of the worst things you can do is be late – this is very insulting. Do your best to get there early. Another meeting must to know is that speeches are often long and seem scripted. Interrupting is very impolite, though mild interjections are tolerated. Also, guests are expected to enter the meeting room in order of rank. Know this, especially during your first meeting when people aren't sure who is who. Translators typically sit behind everyone else. Don't reveal the soles of your shoes or hook your feet around the chair; rather, keep them flat on the ground. Additionally, don't be too bubbly or touchy.