Deeply rooted in the Chinese society is the need to belong and conform to a unit whether it’s an organization, a family or political party. In China, age and rank are highly respected, and if you are an expat working with a Chinese C.E.O, then it’s critical that you understand one or two things about Chinese workplace and business culture to avoid falling out with your boss. Working hard, having technical skills and achieving all your set goals are not enough to leave that long-lasting impression on your boss.
China is an ancient country of etiquette and ceremony and it’s quite complex and diverse. For you to succeed in the Chinese marketplace, then you need to navigate Chinese workplace’s business etiquette and culture. Below are the tips from an expert’s point of view based on the cultural differences that will help you leave a positive impression on your Chinese boss.
People would think that this is as simple as a handshake, but there are numerous ways to get it all wrong. When making an introduction to your Chinese C.E.O, your best bet is to reach out for their hand first. Brian Su, the CEO of Artisan Business Group, says “A high ranking person in the company should never, ever initiate a handshake.” Try not to squeeze it too hard since even the most limp-wristed handshake in China is considered too much intimacy. Lyudmila Bloch, Russian-born international etiquette experts, weighs in on this and says “Most Chinese consider handshakes as excessive touching.” She suggests that a light blow and emphasizes that it’s not necessary to kowtow.
2. Business cards
Business Cards in China are big and people treat them with the utmost respect. If you are an expat, just remember that they form a huge part of China’s business culture, and you are expected to have one. Peter Hemming, Managing Director and Founder of China Insight Ltd, says “Make sure it is professionally done otherwise it will be a disaster.”
The recommended business cards are the ones printed on expensive papers and printed with gold ink since gold is considered the color of prestige and prosperity. Ensure it’s written on one side in English and the other in Chinese. When presenting the card, see to it that the Chinese side is facing the recipient. On the other hand, when you are the one receiving the card, take a minute or two going through the card, say something positive about it before placing it in the card case or put it on the table.
Chinese have the culture of regularly presenting gifts to their family, friends, colleagues or even business associates. It is important to note that the gifts are very symbolical and before offering any gift, be thoughtful enough not to come out offending. For instance, a belt is not the most appropriate gift to give your boss or business associate. It is something personal that might be quite befitting if given to a close friend. In China, a belt would symbolize a desire to hold forever which is out rightly not the emotion you should be expressing to your employer. A clock is not a good choice also since it symbolizes death. A classic, simple, less fancy wristwatch is much more appropriate especially if it is a western brand.
To Chinese business people, numbers come with a lot of baggage. For instance number 4, would be homonymous to death. If your office happens to be on the fourth floor, the chances of your Chinese boss popping in are very dismal. Three and six are more associated with fortune while seven can be terrible of fantastic depending on what one believes. It can be bad because there is some rhyming with the Chinese word for sudden death but it can be great since it can mean positive energy. The safe bet is number nine since it’s regarded highly by the emperors. Number eight is the ultimate win since it’s similar to prosperity and wealth in Chinese. It’s commonplace for many Chinese business people to spend a lot of money on purchasing licenses and telephone numbers which are abundant in number 8s. If you happen to surround yourself with this lucky number, then you will automatically become your boss’s good luck charm.
Chinese are big on food, so you better get used to it. For you to prove to your employer that you are a good team player, then suck it in and keep eating. During business meetings, there is always a lot of meals ranging from snakes, raw pig groin to donkey’s penis. Do not scoff any food off or start acting out. For instance, fish is quite a delicacy in China, and the head is usually given to the chair of the family, guest of honor, or the elderly on the table to mean leader.
6. Hand gestures
Hand gestures would mean a lot of things in different cultures, but the standard, not the acceptable gesture is the middle finger. So does this make the other finger gestures appropriate? Well, not in China. Pointing people especially in the workplace using your index finger is quite rude. If you are trying to get somebody’s attention, it’s much better to use your entire hand. If you are making a presentation, use the full palm or better still keep your hands in your pockets and practice a lot of nodding.
7. Smoking and Drinking
China is a smoking and drinking nation. There is this notion that to prove to your boss that you are worthy of professional respect then take up smoking. Brian Su says “Smoking is still a big ice-breaker for Chinese businesspeople.” During most of the Chinese corporate meetings, the rate of cigarette exchange is higher than business card exchange. If you do not smoke, politely decline and allow them to please smoke. Refrain from those unsolicited lectures about how smoking has serious health repercussions since they get offended.
Chinese have this after-work drinking culture, and they go hard on drinks. As Brian Su says “They’ll say drink so that we can talk business.” They would force you into drinking even with your numerous excuses. What follows is group visits to massage parlors and intoxicated karaoke sessions. It actually up to you to decide whether you are going to monitor the craziness to the latter but I guess it all boils down to how desperate you want to work with them and how far are you willing to go.
8. Feng Shui
Feng Shui is decorative geomancy. When you decide on redesigning your cubicle or office with the principles of feng shui, will it catch your boss’s attention? Will he be impressed? It is quite unfortunate that few Chinese know about the concept of feng shui and its ability to significantly improve the business. But to be more optimistic, with more adaptation of the Western culture, the Chinese are currently embracing the feng shui idea and maybe in future, they will fully warm up to it.
Impressions are important in any workplace. They are essential in opening up and building relationships between different people. Not to mean that you have to know everything when you land in a Chinese company but it won’t hurt if you understood one or two things about Chinese business culture and interpersonal relationships. Remember not to challenge your boss directly because ranks are to be respected and try not to undermine his authority. It is important to read between the lines and separate the whites from the blacks and the things you should steer clear off. Learn to pick on non-verbal communication, ask questions but learn when to stop when it gets uncomfortable. It takes time for Chinese people to trust hence exercise patience, respect their space, focus on your work and stay responsible.
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