"Invisible Man" by Chinese painter-artist Mr. Liu Bolin
18 Practical Tips: "What to say and how to behave in China?”
James Chan, Ph.D.
Asia Marketing and Management (AMM)
Copyright 2019 James Chan
The Executive Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing of a luxury goods manufacturer asked me in 1997: “James: What to say and how to behave in China?” I was the course leader of a three-day seminar “Business Skills for the China Market” which the American Management Association (AMA) hired me to create for Fortune 1000 firms. The gentleman’s question inspired me to write this briefing.
Business people interested in building relationships in China can benefit from practicing the following cross-cultural skills.
Chinese Business Practices
1. Respect their business cards. The Chinese treat exchanging business cards like a handshake. They present their business cards to you with both hands. Don't put their cards away immediately. Rather, place them on the table or hold them in your hand for some time. Take plenty of business cards with you when you go to China. Create a Chinese name for yourself if you’d like. Print only your name and title in Chinese. The rest can be left in English.
2. Get to know people first before doing much business. Initial meetings rarely produce results. Let people feel that they are "connected" with you. This will take some time. Americans place a lot of weight and faith in signed contracts. The Chinese value the unspoken understanding between two persons. If you bring your lawyers to China before you get to know your partner well, you antagonize them. The Chinese are perfectly willing to sign contracts if they feel they can trust you.
3. Let people save face, especially in public. The American behavior that irritates the Chinese the most is asking pointed and loaded questions to their face. Naturally you want all the answers, since you've traveled so far to find the truth. But the Chinese aren't accustomed to revealing much about themselves, especially in public. If someone is vague or evasive, back off. Wait for an occasion when you can meet them privately. More on this later.
4. Avoid certain colors. White is the color of mourning in the Chinese tradition. People in packaging should avoid too much white background. Red, suggesting power, prosperity and authority, is the preferred color. Gold and purple are other good colors.
5. Avoid giving a green-colored hat to a Chinese man. "Wearing a green hat" in Chinese means that someone's wife is being unfaithful, a shameful thing to display in public.
6. Never give a Chinese person a clock. The phrase "to give a clock" rhymes with another phrase that means "to attend someone's funeral." It is all right to give a wrist watch, but not a clock.
7. Respect Chinese numerology. Many Chinese people are superstitious about numbers. For example, the number 4 in Chinese rhymes with "death" or "failure." Many people try very hard not to have their house numbers or telephone numbers contain the numeral 4. The number 14 is even worse. The Chinese for 14 rhymes with "sure fail, sure die." Numerals 3 and 8 are good. The numeral 3 in Chinese rhymes with "growth," while the numeral 8 rhymes with "prosperity." It's no accident that the telephone numbers of many hotels in various Chinese cities contain the numerals 8888. They want their Chinese customers to feel good.
8. Understand the meaning of "guan xi" or personal relationship and learn to cultivate it, slowly. When you know someone well, you have guan xi with him or her. If you show up not “knowing” anyone with a legal document, people may sense that you’re being hostile and bearing ill-will.
Cross-Cultural Communication Skills
9. Smile. Smiling is the most common way to show friendliness among strangers. Wearing a serious-looking, poker face will cause your relationship to get off on the wrong foot. The Chinese use smiles as a defense mechanism. They smile when they're nervous or uncomfortable. They smile when they feel embarrassed. In some Western countries, giggling isn't proper behavior. In China, it's practiced by people at all social levels.
10. Speak slowly. Some Americans like to speak fast. The result is that they lose their audience. It doesn't matter how superb your ideas are if you can't convey them in ways the Chinese can understand. The Chinese consider it impolite to ask someone to repeat themselves. If they don't understand you, they'll just sit there looking like they do and letting your thoughts and ideas pass them by. It's critical to speak slowly. The same holds true with interpreters. If you speak too fast, the interpreter will simply not translate those ideas that they don't understand. They may be too shy to ask you to repeat yourself or they fear that they'll lose face.
11. Don’t be too casual with people you don’t know well. In America, we often call people we don't know by their first names. CEOs and employees may address each other as if they were on equal footing. This is not considered good manners in China. Always be formal in addressing people whom you meet for the first time.
12. Don't expect much eye contact. We in America must make steady eye contact when we talk with people. This is not the case among the Chinese. For the Chinese, a lack of steady eye contact doesn't indicate a lack of attention or respect. Steady eye contact can be construed as defiance. When people get angry, they will maintain strong and steady eye contact with you. Otherwise, they look elsewhere or appear nonchalant while talking.
13. Let them smoke. There are still many people who smoke in China. If you let them smoke and not criticize their habit, they'll listen to you longer.
14. Don't take their saying "yes" literally to mean affirmative. Chinese people have a habit of saying "yes" to show that they're paying attention or that they're following what you say. The word "yes" doesn't mean that they agree with you at all.
15. Curb the use of slang words. Many Chinese learn English in school. They're often unaware of colloquialisms or figures of speech that we take for granted. I've seen "Love Canal" translated as "sex virology." An article on negotiation skills contains the phrase "football stadium" when in fact the English original talks about "a level playing field." Other American phrases such as "in terms of," "skinny," "ballpark," "sidebar" and sports jargon will confuse the Chinese.
16. Use metric units. Supply technical data and pricing information in both English and metric units. Your customers and suppliers will appreciate it.
Recruiting, Training and Managing People
17. Introduce your people to the Chinese personally. If you plan to delegate some of your work to your colleagues, it is a good practice to first introduce them to your Chinese partners or agents in person yourself. You can’t overestimate the importance of such a seemingly “unimportant” act. Asian cultures that are influenced by the Confucian ethos--Chinese, Japanese, Korean--place great emphasis on personal introductions as the basis of trust. Your personal introduction, when done right, is to transfer and impart trust among people who work for you.
18. Meet people privately. As a rule, Chinese won’t express how they feel in public. But when they're with you on a "one-on-one" situation far from the earshot of another person, they tend to become direct and straightforward. This is the single most valuable and practical skill in finding the truth. I've learned to make my presentations in front of large Chinese audiences without expecting to field many questions. I’ll stay for a while afterwards instead of leaving the room. Invariably, a few people will come up to me, wanting to schedule a private meeting. I've found those meetings to be extremely valuable. Learn to pull people aside and talk with them privately. The kindred spirits who like and respect you will give your valuable tips to open the market place.
* * *
James Chan, Ph.D.
Founder and Principal Consultant
Asia Marketing and Management (AMM)
2014 Naudain Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146-1317, USA
Telephone (land line): +1 (215) 735-7670
Mobile: +1 (267) 324-6227
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or JamesChan@AsiaMarketingManagement.com
James Wah Kong Chan, Ph.D., Consultant Asia Marketing and Management (AMM) 2014 Naudain Street