New York Etiquette Guide

Demystifying Chinese Body Language and Business Manners

Posted on Wed, Jul 18, 2012
Chinese body language
by Randall Mah

To Westerners, Chinese might seem distant or to be lacking in warmth. Americans are accustomed to giving strangers enthusiastic and hearty welcomes that are meant to put the other person at ease by conveying a sense of familiarity and informality. But while the body language and physical contact of Americans in professional and personal settings can sometimes overlap, Chinese like to keep these spheres separate. Understanding these cultural differences and Chinese body language will help keep you from offending and being offended during a business meeting.


Chinese dislike being touched by strangers. Social etiquette in China forbids hugging or kissing, which is uncommon even among friends and family. Consequently in professional settings, Chinese will maintain a certain degree of physical space between themselves and others. During professional greetings, limit yourself to a handshake.

Handshakes have become increasingly common in China, especially among Chinese who interact with foreigners. They may, however, be less firm than those to which you are accustomed. This does not mean Chinese lack sincerity, but an especially firm handshake may be interpreted as being aggressive.

A slight nod of the head is also appropriate. While Japanese and Koreans bow like Americans wave their hands, Chinese typically bow only during funerals, weddings and formal occasions.  

Watch your eye contact. While American business etiquette encourages sustained eye contact as a way to convey sincerity and respect, maintaining too much eye contact with a Chinese can be interpreted as a challenge, especially if the person you’re looking at is of senior rank.

Not everything’s so foreign

Of course, there is no need to think you will commit a faux pas at every turn. Many of the same business manners followed in the United States are also followed in China.

Snapping your fingers or whistling to get somebody’s attention is rude. Hand gestures like pointing must also be avoided. To beckon others, Chinese face the palms of their hands downward and motion their fingers toward themselves. If they want to point at something, they use an open hand extended forward.   

Blowing your nose into a handkerchief and then placing it back into your pocket is considered vulgar. Instead, either excuse yourself or discreetly use disposable tissues.

The feet are the lowest part of the body and in Chinese culture are therefore considered unclean. As such, do not put your feet on furniture or, even worse, use your feet to point at others or pass objects.


A few little-known facts

Chinese are often reluctant to express disagreement openly. As such, they may use subtle gestures to signal disagreement in order to save the face of those with whom they disagree. In order to signal surprise or displeasure, Chinese may breathe audibly and quickly through their teeth and lips. This gesture allows others to alter their behavior.

Chinese businesspeople will often nod during conversations. Nodding, however, should not necessarily be interpreted as agreement or an affirmative answer. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of the speaker.

In order to refer or point to themselves, Chinese may use their index fingers to touch their noses.

Don’t misinterpret smiles. While a smile usually expresses warmth and delight, for Chinese it may also be an attempt to maintain calm in a tense, uncomfortable or awkward situation.

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Tags: cultural differences, Chinese body language., Chinese handshake, American Business etiquette, Chinese business manners, Chinese Etiquette Expert, Chinese culture, social etiquette in China