For my first post of the year, I thought I would offer a useful list of things to consider when doing business in China or with a Chinese company. This is obviously not comprehensive, but I hope it is robust enough to help you consider some important issues that will arise in your international relationships.
1. Accept business cards with 2 hands
They will accept yours with 2 hands as well. If you are sitting, then it is polite to stand up, even if just enough to pull yourself off the chair slightly. Also, it is even more meaningful to hold the card firmly, so that the receiver has to rip it out of your hands ever so slightly. This is the beginning of the relationship and this is your chance to show your sincere desire to start the relationship off right.
2. Express admiration for their culture, food, or country in some way.
This gives them honor and “face”, which puts them in a much better mood and feeling good about the longterm aspects of the relationship.
3. Expect after hour activities, such as karaoke, dinner, or massages.
Chinese people don’t have credit reports. They have “guanxi” or relationship oriented business. This is changing and morphing into something different, but it is still vital. Just don’t do something you are uncomfortable with. Those massage and karaoke places can offer “special services”, so be clear about your intentions very early if a line of girls are brought out to sing with you and the host is choosing which girl will pair up with you for a special duet.
4. Only eat everything on your plate if you want more food.
This may cause your host to order more food, so keep this in mind because he/she won’t ask you, they will just order more.
5. Learn the language
Any amount, even a few sentences, will impress the Chinese. It really does mean a lot to them. Maybe in 10 years it won’t be such a big deal, but right now it will have an impact.
6. Treat sensitive topics with sensitivity.
Let them save face. If it doesn’t need to be brought up, then don’t bring it up. Let it go and move on to topics that make them look credible.
7. Don’t complain about the toilets.
The reply to “How do you like China so far?”, should not be your chance to be honest about the hygenic differences you have struggled with in the few days you have spent there. If you peed on your shoe because you didn’t know how to use the squatty potty, tell your spouse or co-worker, but don’t embarrass your host by calling his country under-developed and dirty.
8. It’s best to have bosses talk to bosses and techies talk to techies.
I have talked with Chinese CEOs who have canceled business relationships because the boss is talking to the engineers to solve problems in the relationship, rather than keeping his conversations at the boss level.
9. Don’t expect to put together a deal in one weekend.
Have patience. Set patient expectations for your superiors, especially in the beginning. It takes time for the Chinese to build relationships strong enough for them to even start business discussions.
10. Live in China for a time
This really opens your eyes to all the little things you should be paying attention to as you conduct business in China. The other expats will also be a good group to associate with as they have learned many of the unique cultural differences and similarities between the US and China.
11. Tell them something personal.
I always shared pictures of my family with my Chinese associates. It made them feel like they knew me. They want to know if they can trust you and sharing the sincere parts of yourself with them communicates that answer strongly.
12. Offer them the same level of treatment when they visit you.
This can seem a bit daunting if they went all out for you on your visit, but when they visit your offices, you must give them equal or better treatment. It can’t be a one-sided relationship.
13. Bring a gift
Nothing too lavish, but something unique to where you come from is usually a good idea.
14. Have a translator with you, especially when you start discussing agreements or contracts.
Our languages are very different and English is not as established in China as it is in places like Europe, so make sure the official stuff is handled with official translators.
15. If you are Jewish, be sure to mention it.
Chinese people love Jews! If you tell them you are Jewish, they automatically identify with many of the Jewish stereotypes of being really smart with your money. I have personally seen it offer an initial advantage (obviously, I don’t claim this and you should be honest).
16. Create friends by doing favors.
Doing a favor for someone can be a part of their relationship “game”, but it can also accelerate a sincere and lasting business relationship.
17. Be careful what favors you let others do for you.
Remember that eventually you will have to respond with a favor of equal or greater value!
18. Steer away from politics and religion.
These are not topics that Chinese people are used to discussing. Even if they lure you into these topics, I advise you find a way to change the subject and focus more on culture, education, business, personal lives, and economics.
19. Try and have one-on-one talks with everyone in the constituency you are trying to work with at your level.
There are a lot of things that each person is thinking about and not saying because of Chinese culture and they don’t want you to lose face. The real issues can be initiated offline in a more personal setting.
20. Help them build a larger network. Introduce them to someone useful for them.
This can be one of the best favors you can do for someone. “Guanxi” is all about the power of their network and if you can increase that power, then you become very important to them.
21. Have something to drink in your glass at all times.
If you don’t drink alcohol, coffee, or tea and everyone else does, then you need something in your glass as a substitute. Otherwise they will pressure you to drink what they are drinking until you either give in or they lose face in front of everyone. I have made the mistake of not ordering a drink and the pressure begins only to have beer bottles thrown and shattered at my feet for making them think I was too good to drink with them.
22. Complement them on their English.
Yeah, even if it’s not good. Just give them props for trying. Our languages are very different and they have probably put in a lot of time to say those few sentences.
23. Take a lot of pictures with them.
The more official an event, the more pictures you should expect to take of the whole group.
24. Meals are for meetings and long conversations, not for eating.
Don’t eat too quick. Pace yourself or you will start gaining a lot of weight.
25. Watch out for the bones when you take a bite.
Much of the meat in China has bones. They cut the meat up with the bones still intact and you can be fooled very easily. My first bite was always a tentative test. You don’t want to go to a dentist in a foreign country.
26. Prepare for many toasts to future cooperation.
You should make at least one toast during your meal. Try and clink your glass to the bottom of theirs as a sign of respect. They will usually beat you to the punch and go lower than you.
27. Save disagreements for the right setting and the right timing (usually at an indirect time).
Save major disagreements for one-on-one conversations.
28. Typically, you should wear a suit or formal business wear to scheduled meetings.
29. Take off the tie for later activities.
30. Resist compliments.
Appropriate responses include, “You are too kind,” and, “I should have done more.”
Feel free to share your thoughts or other business practices you have found beneficial around the world.