How to Conduct a Successful Business Meeting in China
by Randall Mah
When doing business in China and interacting with Chinese, some Americans suffer from cultural myopia and conduct themselves as if they were still in the United States. While your Chinese hosts are likely to be accommodating of cultural differences and may have familiarized themselves with American culture, learning about Chinese business etiquette and cultural nuances is essential.
Chinese tend to take punctuality seriously, so it is important to arrive on time. Tardiness is generally considered rude, and your hosts may believe you do not take their business seriously.
Handshaking has become the norm at business meetings, however they may not be the firm handshakes to which Americans are accustomed. A slight nod of the head is also common. Unlike Japanese or Koreans, Chinese do not bow during everyday circumstances. You should also avoid excessive eye contact, especially with senior officials. During introductions, you may notice that Chinese look down.
Exchanging business cards is still an essential part of the Chinese meeting-and-greeting protocol. When presenting and receiving business cards (or anything else), use both hands. Examine the card and keep it on the table during a meeting like an important document. You may want to print business cards with a Chinese translation on one side.
While Americans tend to value straight talk and directness is almost expected during workplace conflict resolution, Chinese like to take things slowly. Building a rapport with their business partners is essential for building trust. Consequently, meetings typically start with small talk and progress towards serious matters. Big decisions should not be expected during initial meetings as both parties get acquainted. Patience is a virtue and you should expect multiple meetings. The fostering of guanxi, or personal connections, leads to more successful transactions in China.
English is the language of international business but you must speak clearly and simply so non-native speakers can understand as well. You should not feel you are being condescending because you are using common words and simple language without colloquialisms. While some of your business partners may be fluent in English, your goal is to communicate with everybody at the meeting.
Do not mistake the nodding of your Chinese partners as a “yes” signal. Chinese may not always tell you they don’t understand details. Using an interpreter may be beneficial to enable your Chinese partners grasp the essence of the discussion, while allowing the interpreter to translate more effectively.
Chinese tend to feel more comfortable and free to be straightforward and honest during private meetings. By chatting one-on-one with your Chinese partners, you may get more information than during a group meeting, where consensus is cherished.
After a meeting, stick around and chat privately to discuss your concerns.
Don’t be too casual
Chinese have a deep respect for hierarchy and formality in business settings. While Americans tend to be informal and treat new acquaintances in a casual manner, Chinese are more formal and traditional. Maintaining a professional atmosphere is critical.
While Chinese appreciate personal warmth and there is no need to be stiff, casual interactions are reserved only for family and friends. Consequently, honorifics should always be used and touching should be avoided at all costs. Brusqueness and assertiveness are frowned upon.
If you follow these simple guidelines, your multicultural savvy will put Chinese partners at ease and set an appropriate tone for future interactions.