Business in China is still a very personal thing. Face-to-face meetings are generally preferred over phone or email conversations. It is important to be able to talk, laugh, and argue with your Chinese counterparts; to eat with them before you deal with them. Inevitably, everyone with business in China will be invited to more than just meetings. You will be going to restaurants, karaoke bars, and golf courses with your clients and suppliers, preferably after a long day of sightseeing and factory visits. No matter what is discussed during the formal meetings and contract negotiations, it is on these infamous business trips that decisions are really made. Therefore, you would do well to make the most of your invitation. The following are 10 things you can do on these trips to leave a favourable impression of your business and yourself, and more importantly: to help you see through all the pleasantries and understand what is in the deal for you.
1. Learn how to drink
Drinking is an integral part of Chinese dining etiquette. Frequent toasts are used as a means of expressing gratitude and respect to your hosts and fellow guests, and they will return the favour. Standard drinks are beer and strong Chinese rice wine, although red wine is becoming more popular. When a toast is called, keep a close eye on your Chinese companions and follow in their actions. The more important toasts will call for an empty glass, usually preluded by shouts of gan bei!, literally meaning “dry glass!”. To only sip from your drinks on such an occasion is generally frowned upon. As more food arrives, more toasts will be called for, and you would do well to try to keep yourself from becoming too intoxicated, for example by drinking only when toasts are called for, and taking smaller sips when it is not required to empty your glass. You will quickly discover that the myth that Chinese are drinking lightweights is not often true. Getting (somewhat) drunk together is seen as building trust for future business.
If you are a man, it will be assumed that you smoke. However, a Chinese person offering you a cigarette isn’t so much saying “have a smoke” as he or she is extending their welcome and hospitality to you, and doing what is expected of them as a host. It may be a good idea to accept at least once, even if you only take a single puff and then dispose of the thing after a few minutes. Smoking in China does not have the unhealthy and undesirable image that it has in large parts of Europe and the US. Rather, it is considered a means for men to level and connect over something they both enjoy doing. Note that women are rarely expected to smoke.
Should you really, absolutely be opposed to smoking or drinking, or cannot do either because of health reasons, you can always explain and refuse. However, this will not be met with the same understanding as it may be elsewhere in the world, so have your story ready.
2. Come bearing gifts
Gifts are an excellent way of starting off on the right foot in China. If you are invited to someone’s home, it is absolutely necessary that you bring a gift, but even in meetings and business it is a good idea to find out who the decision-makers are and present them with something nice. Gifts can also be a very effective means of expressing your appreciation for efforts made, and to keep you and your business in the picture after a deal well done. Don’t confuse every gift with corruption: although it is certainly true that there is much of that in China still, this is a culture in which gift-giving plays a central role in acknowledging status and the respect you have for others. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, eager to start trade with China, Western nations sent ships full of gifts to the emperors. Today, visitors to any wedding are required to register at the entrance with a hong bao, a red envelope containing a set amount of money.
Suitable gifts depend on the occasion, but it is always a good idea to bring something from your own country, as this will invariably intrigue the recipient and make your gift stand out. Cigars or foreign spirits make for good gifts in business, and standard tourist tack from your home country does well in most other situations, for example Swiss chocolate, or a miniature kangaroo. If you need to buy gifts in China, fruit is a pretty safe bet. Be very careful with flowers as there are unacceptable colours (white) and types (chrysanthemum).
3. Speak slowly and clearly
It can be difficult to understand the English spoken by a native Chinese speaker, so don’t expect them to understand you any better. If your companions aren’t exactly fluent English speakers, try to adapt to their level. This is a very important issue, because although you may frequently be misunderstood, you will never find out. It’s not quite compatible with Chinese culture to stop you halfway through your sentence and say “sorry, could you repeat that please?”. Instead, you are more likely to find your conversation partner nodding sagely and moving on to a different subject. You may feel you were understood when in fact you weren’t. It is especially important for native English speakers to remember this very well, and to avoid using slang, heavy regional accents, or speaking too quickly. Don’t use too many figures of speech as these don’t translate very well. Try to dumb down your speech, as you won’t be told if you are not being understood, which defeats the entire purpose of your trip.
4. Follow up on every business card
Although this is good advice anywhere in the world, business cards are especially commonplace in China. Everyone has them, and you’re likely to exchange cards and names, in that order. Because of such high numbers of incoming and outgoing business cards, you’ll want to make sure that yours is not thrown on a big pile with the rest of them. Within a few days of exchanging cards with someone, shoot them a quick email or give them a call saying you enjoyed meeting them and hope to do some business in the future. It will move your card from the big pile of random ones to the much smaller ‘nice people and potential business interests’ pile. That is a good place to be.
5. Learn a couple of words in Chinese… but not the standard ones!
Sure, your companions will pretend to be impressed by your ni hao’s and xie xie’s, but it’s obviously not much of a feat. If you can speak Chinese, that’s great and a very valuable asset. If you can’t, however, it might be a good idea to just learn a couple of Chinese conversation-starters, such as the names of common dishes or a famous quote or two. When the rice wine comes out, your party will be duly impressed if you ask them whether this mao tai (a famous rice wine) is the real one from gui zhou (a province)? Tell them you can’t wait to try the jiao zi (dumplings) because you heard they were a local specialty. Ask your companions to give you a suitable Chinese name if you don’t have one yet.
6. Don’t worry about faux pas
To know every single Chinese custom or rule of etiquette would practically require you to be Chinese yourself. This is not necessary. Follow your companions’ example, but should you end up doing something that is normally frowned upon among Chinese, you will probably not even notice. As a foreigner, you are not expected to understand every element of Chinese culture (in fact, even if you did, you would not be believed), and as such you are excused from your inevitable mistakes. Try not to worry about them at all. Some foreign businessmen are so convinced that Chinese etiquette has to be strictly adhered to, that they end up being nervous and boring, thereby committing the biggest faux pas of all: not enjoying themselves. If you relax and have a good time, your Chinese partners will be pleased in turn. After all, they are trying to impress and welcome you. Enjoy yourself, but stay sharp. It takes more to build trust and friendship than one simple dinner or tour.
7. Don’t make a scene
Know what you want and be determined and unrelenting in negotiations, but try to keep an open mind when it comes to the Chinese way of doing things. There will be a lot of time wasting and things will appear unorganised. Schedules and estimates go right out the window because cars will be late, papers must be checked, and planning was way too tight to begin with. After days of wining and dining and trips to factories that all look the same, you may start losing patience and wonder when you can get down to business. Don’t let it get to you. Getting things done in China is a test of endurance. Impatience is not a great way to show your commitment. Accept the Chinese mentality in your negotiations, but keep your own bottom line in mind. You can accept delays in reaching an agreement, but that agreement must be based on your unwillingness to accept delays in delivery of goods or payment.
8. Dress for business
This might seem like a small issue, but don’t let the weather or familiarity of your Chinese companions tempt you. Try to remain in business attire at all times. At most, take off your jacket if it is too hot. The whole tour may appear like a school trip to you as your business partners seemingly focus only on eating and drinking, and snapping away with their cameras at all the sights, but ask yourself why they are all consistently wearing suits. As much as the general idea may be to relax and enjoy, if you are dressed for business you will be ready for it when it comes your way.
9. Agree to disagree
Many visitors to China simply cannot resist. They have to ask about sensitive issues in the past or the Chinese version of events. Especially after you start to feel comfortable and perhaps have had a few drinks, it can be very tempting to touch upon issues such as Mao Zedong or a certain event on a certain square in 1989. However subtle, this is generally not a good idea. If you do go there, remember that the Chinese have their own version of the past and understand that this is necessary for them to live with it and move on. You will find few Chinese who truly believe that the path their people have taken has always been without flaw; but you will find even fewer that are willing to openly criticize it. This is not because they are not allowed to, but simply because they often do not desire to. There’s nothing in it for them. So, instead of talking about the past, why not focus on the future? You will find that to be a subject the Chinese are much more willing to discuss openly.
10. Make your decisions at home
Of course, all the pleasantries eventually have to lead to some results. It would be unfair to the Chinese to think that they are just trying to lull you into a sense of trust and comfort so as to take full advantage of you, but there is definitely an element that tries to make you feel a little guilty and consequently ‘sweeten the deal’. Don’t do this. Keep your own bottom line in mind and listen to what your partners have to say, but don’t agree to anything you will regret as soon as you board your plane back home. Your potential clients and suppliers are very likely to try and pressure you into a deal or agreement before you return, but it is often wise to hold off the boat a little longer. In the face of all the niceties, it can be difficult to stay strong and stick to your demands. Therefore, make an excuse and tell your partners that you cannot agree to anything before discussing things with your associates back home. Take your time to think about proposals, and then decide. Your decision is much more likely to be in the interest of your business than when you rush into a deal on Chinese soil. Don’t let the Chinese threaten you with competition either, because if the deal is any good and your partnership is made to last, they will want it as much as you do. Be duly impressed, but keep matters in your own hands.