What does ‘Guanxi’ mean? Why does my Chinese business partner have a Western name? And most importantly; how should I behave during a business trip to China?
If you are a business professional with connections to China, it is likely that one of these questions has crossed your mind in the past. And if you’re planning a business trip to China, it is crucial for you to know the answers.
This is where we come in! In this article we will provide you with some essential insights into the Chinese business culture – so that you can make your trip a roaring success!
Before we dig deeper into how to prepare for your business trip, here is a quick overview of a few key aspects that you should keep in mind during your business trip to China:
- Treat the elderly and senior businesspeople with utmost respect. The Chinese culture values hierarchy, so this deserves to be recognized.
- Do not insult anyone’s honor or cause them to lose face. You should also avoid making yourself look like a fool.
- Learn the value of ‘Guanxi’. This concept is a big part of the Chinese business culture. It stresses the importance of personal relationships and the resulting network of companies (or individuals) that can support you in your business activities.
- Download the apps below. The Chinese internet is restricted, so it is advisable to take this into account when preparing for the trip.
Download these apps for a smooth trip
1. Use WeChat to keep in touch with your Chinese partners
The “Great Firewall of China” makes the use of (Western) apps such as WhatsApp and Skype rather difficult, so you should consider downloading the English version of China’s number one messaging app: WeChat. Almost everybody in China uses this service, which is comparable to WhatsApp but also has the functionalities of Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal. Most Chinese companies also use WeChat in the workplace.
2. Get a Virtual Personal Network (VPN) to stay in touch with your colleagues back home
The use of the internet in China is tricky because it is monitored by the government. Some email services are therefore not accessible. To stay up-to-date with your company back home, it is a good idea to invest in a VPN. This is the best way to get a reliable internet service during your trip to China. You can, for example, download TunnelBear or ExpressVPN.
3. Use Didi to get from A to B
If you are going to visit big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai we recommend downloading the app Didi. If you don’t speak Chinese, it is almost impossible to use public transport. Besides, metros and busses are crammed full of people during rush hour. With the app Didi, which has an English version that you can download in advance, you can easily book a taxi. This is especially useful in the morning on working days, when it is super tricky to get a taxi. Most taxi drivers accept bookings via Didi, which is why you can’t just hail a taxi on the street. Alternatively, you can also ask the receptionist of your hotel to book a taxi for you, but this option is more expensive – don’t forget to ask how far it is from the hotel to the place of your appointment.
Take note of the Chinese dress code and gift-giving culture
Now that you know what digital preparations are required, let’s move on to what to pack.
The dress code
As in most countries, the safe option is to attend a Chinese business meeting wearing a classic, high-quality suit. Modesty is still highly valued in Chinese business culture. Women could opt to wear a dress with a high neckline, but they should avoid short sleeved blouses and high heels. No matter your gender; the colors of your clothes should be subtle and neutral, and darker colors are preferred.
If it is your first visit to a Chinese partner company, it’s a great idea to bring a traditional present that reflects your country’s culture. Chinese people also bring a traditionally Chinese present to the first meeting, so it would be nice to reciprocate with a similar gift. It does not have to be overly expensive – a miniature version of a famous building, for example, would suffice. If you or one of your colleagues has published a book, a signed copy would also make for a great present.
If your gift is made up of multiple parts, make sure the number of parts is not equal to 4, as this number signifies bad luck in China. The numbers 6 and 8 are fine, as they stand for progress and luck. Should your business partner offer you a gift as well, attempt to refuse it first –this is custom in Chinese business culture. You may then humbly accept the offer, but do not open it immediately (unless your Chinese partner opens it first).
Business cards are very important in Chinese business culture. It’s recommended to translate your business card and your company brochure into Simplified Chinese. Your card should have a Chinese text on the front and an English one on the back. It should include your title, and if there are noteworthy features about your company (such as being the largest or oldest one in your country), you can include this as well.
How to behave during business meetings
Chinese people generally prefer personal contact with face-to-face conversations over other forms of communication. Business trips to China can therefore be essential to your success in this country, especially because they give you the opportunity to build relationships and become a trusted friend of the company. This stresses once more the importance of personal relations when doing business in China – this is also referred to as ‘Guanxi’. This is one of the most vital concepts in understanding Chinese business culture.
The introduction and exchange of business cards
If possible, enter the room in order of seniority within the company. The formal greeting has to take place in the same order. It consists of a short and gentle handshake that the Chinese person after he/she has introduced him/herself. State your position within the company, followed by your last name. Pay attention during your partner’s introduction: knowing the honorific titles of your Chinese business partner may be even more important than knowing their actual name.
Do not be surprised if a Chinese person introduces him- or herself with a Western first name: businesspeople who frequently interact with Western cultures are known to do that sometimes.
The translated business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction. They have to be given and received with both hands. Present your card with the Chinese side facing your conversation partners, and treat the card you receive with respect by examining it carefully before placing it on the table or in your card holder. Do not put it away immediately; this can be interpreted as an insult.
Topics of conversation
When it comes to small talk and relationship building, there are a few topics that should be avoided. For example, topics related to Chinese politics, national integrity and potentially painful events from history can be risky. It’s often safer to discuss the Chinese education system and ancient Chinese history.
Be well-prepared for the business meeting
Business meetings should be organized well in advance, but make sure you don’t plan them on a Chinese holiday. It is crucial to be well-prepared for a business meeting with a Chinese company. Get to know their business, translate the material that you would like to provide to them, and send your company brochure and agenda for the meeting (including any equipment you might need) ahead of time. Other aspects you need to take into account include:
- Your presentation should be detailed, factual, and focused on long-term results. Since colors (and their association) can be a sensitive issue, you may want to stick to a standard black-and white layout.
- Because of the hierarchical mindset of Chinese people, it is up to the most senior person in your company to be the spokesperson.
- Silence is not necessarily an invitation to talk; it is used as an opportunity to consider what has been said and to work out the appropriate response.
- Chinese people do not like to say “no”. So if they say things like “I will think about it”, “not a problem”, or even “yes”, the answer is not necessarily a definite “yes”.
Dinner and drinks – an opportunity to talk business and build a good relationship
In China, food is considered to be quite important. Closing a deal over a business dinner is not unheard of, it is simply how business is often done in China. It is therefore not an issue to talk about business during dinner. Going for a drink with your Chinese business partners is a great opportunity to socialize and create a strong personal bond with them. This way, they will be more likely to see you as a close friend.
During dinner, Chinese people like to drink ‘Baijiu’, a strong alcoholic beverage. They enjoy it when you drink a lot of this, as it shows you like it (and them). If somebody performs a toast to you, you can show respect by joining in. And you should also do a toast for them – starting with the most senior person on the table. Hence, it’s useful to know the Chinese word for ‘Cheers’: ‘Ganbei’, which basically means ‘bottoms up’. If this word is uttered, you have to finish your drink – but don’t worry, the glasses for alcoholic drinks are usually rather small.
Chinese cuisine and customs
Do not be shocked if you see a Chinese person eat chicken necks or feet. The Chinese food culture includes many things that aren’t on the shopping list of Western people. A business dinner is usually quite delicious and expensive, but there may be a few dishes that look foreign to you. If you do not want to eat something, avoid the dish entirely. It is considered very rude to mention that you think something is disgusting. And we can assure you, there is always going to be something that you will like.
Dinner does not usually start later than 6pm, since it may last up to three hours. Be prepared for such a long dinner – and for the question whether you would like to go to a karaoke bar or massage parlor afterwards. It is up to you to decide whether you want to join them or not.
The Chinese people will be impressed if you are able to eat with chopsticks, but it is no problem if you prefer to eat with knife and fork; they do not expect you to learn it for your trip.
We wish you a successful business trip to China! Let us know if you would like to know more about the Chinese culture, of if you require a Chinese translation! We are happy to help.
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