Mind Your Manners: 7 Tips for Better Business in China

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Cultural gaffes are easy to make, long remembered and difficult to undo, thus my desire to avoid them. As the planning business can take you just about anywhere in the world, handling yourself politely and in a culturally sensitive manner is an essential part of the job.

But I’m American which pretty much means that just being myself is my God-given right. So when overseas, I have to remind myself on occasion that etiquette matters. One mishandled business card or hierarchical misstep and you’re off to a very bad start. What’s normal in New York or Paris may be considered wildly offensive elsewhere, so it helps to have a sense of where the potential pitfalls lie. Know your audience, because like it or not, opinions and ultimately relationships will be formed based on how well you navigate the terrain.

I am by no means Emily Post – more than 4 glasses at my place-setting at dinner and I will draw a blank on what the 5th is for (sherry, it turns out) – so before a recent first-time visit to Macao and Hong Kong, I stocked up on politeness pointers from a few Chinese colleagues working in the U.S. and a few expat friends working in Hong Kong.

All thanks to them, I’m pretty sure I didn’t unwittingly set off an international incident. At least I don’t think so – or perhaps the Chinese were too polite to point out my shortcomings? Either way, here’s what  my cultural consultants had to say:

MEETING, GREETING AND EATING

1) Those five minutes really do matter.
In New York, I’m perpetually five minutes late (as is everyone else). In London, punctuality is important, but 5-minute lateness is forgivable for foreigners. In L.A., colleagues often wander in 10-20 minutes after start time, usually making me (for once) the first to arrive. In Macao and Hong Kong, time is money, so while running in heels to appointments, a mere three minutes late, I was receiving multiple texts politely requesting my ETA. Point taken. Punctuality is punctuality in these parts, so I pulled it together for the rest of my meetings – and took a lot more taxis to make them on time.

2) Mind your business cards.
In the U.S., most of us receive business cards with a nod, then immediately shove them into pockets, without breaking eye contact, no disrespect. Doing the same in China, however, won’t win you many fans, says Texas transplant and Assistant Director, Public Relations at Sheraton Macao Hotel, Cotai Central, Jennifer Welker, “It is very polite to use both hands when presenting your business cards to someone, facing them, as it is a sign of respect. ” So, remember to receive a business card graciously. Take a moment to read it and inquire about what they do. How to make the exchange even more polite? Choose a higher-quality card stock and “print one side in English and the other in Chinese,” says Welker. “Those small, extra touches make a big impression.”

3) Keep your hands to yourself.
Europeans often offer kisses on both cheeks and Americans are no strangers to the exuberant bear hug. The Chinese? Not so much, particularly in a business setting. Says one Hong Kong-based businesswoman and recent Bay Area transfer, “Compared to us, the Chinese are not incredibly touchy, so particularly when first meeting, keep your hands to yourself. I wouldn’t recommend hugging or air kissing either,” adding that “even handshakes are somewhat minimal,” so pay attention and follow the locals’ lead. If, however, your Chinese host greets you with arm outstretched then, by all means, don’t just stand there – reciprocate!

4) Communicate like a local.
Perhaps more so than in other countries, and certainly more so than in the U.S., “apps like WeChat and QQ are normal for serious business communications, mostly within a company or within teams,” says Hong Kong-based videographer and New York transplant Jason Eng. So don’t be surprised if you get more texts than emails. Adds Eng, “some Chinese companies prefer QQ over email, so be open to possibly adding it to your device to stay in the loop.”

5) Master your mealtime poker face.
Obviously, the Chinese have a different eating culture, different ingredients and different food preferences. Some of the foods that are beloved delicacies (as well as everyday dishes) may seem strange or unappealing to the American palette. The Chinese have a tremendous love for food and take great pride in it, according to my Bay Area buddy, “so it’s really important not to make facial expressions showing disapproval or displeasure.” Be ready for anything and prepared to handle whatever is served, with appreciation. Who knows, you may even discover a new favorite, so keep your culinary options open.

GIFTING YOUR COLLEAGUES

6) Make it count.
Gift giving is an art in many Asian cultures and China is no exception. Gifts should, of course, always be thoughtfully chosen, tasteful and not too over-the-top, so as not to obligate or embarrass the recipient. Modest gifts from your home country are always welcome, just don’t wrap them until after you’ve cleared Customs or you may have to re-wrap them when you touch down. Also, be sure there are enough gifts for each meeting attendee – all of the same caliber – so try to get an accurate head count in advance. As added insurance, consider carrying a few extras so you’re not caught short which can cause embarrassment for both giver and recipient.

ChinaGaffes27) Know what your gift actually means.
“Certain numbers and colors have specific meanings in Chinese culture, so do your research and gift with care,” says Sheraton Macao PR maven Welker. For example, it’s best not to give a book as a gift because the pronunciation of the word “book” sounds like the Chinese verb “to lose.” Pay attention to the color of your gift wrap as well, avoiding black and white which can have negative associations (death, funerals, etc.). Instead, consider using red paper with a little gold ribbon, which are more commonly associated with good fortune. Another tip: As the symbolism can vary from province to province, consider getting gift-giving guidance at a local gift buying firm or ask your hotel concierge to assist.

What else to keep in mind? “That there are no rules,” says Eng. “As long as you have the attitude that ‘I am learning from you,’ there’s no need to feel embarrassed, nor will you embarrass yourself. As a foreigner you are expected to be somewhat awkward.” And that’s good news no matter what line of work you’re in!

Photo credits: Shutterstock

Kate Doyle Hooper

Kate Doyle Hooper

Since establishing her own company over a decade ago, Kate has produced just about every kind of event imaginable, from executive meetings and conferences to live music performances, mobile tours, fashion shows, celebrity gifting suites, and retail events for companies such as American Media, Bloomingdale’s, Conde Nast, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Harper’s BAZAAR, Hearst, Macy’s, Perry Ellis, Time Inc., Wilhelmina Models and Rodale, to name a few. Kate's editorial and advertising work has been published in Budget Living, ELLE, Fit, Civilization, Conde Nast Traveler, Esquire, Essence, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, Men's Fitness, Men's Health and Shape, as well as on blog.cvent.com and weekendwalk.com.

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