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Fundamental differences of doing business in China

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So what major differences should professionals be aware of when doing business in China compared to the west?

The importance of face

Actions can either save or loose you face, influencing professional reputation. The Chinese aim not to show anger, loose control, be insulting, indecisive or show disappointment (displays of weakness) to avoid loosing face/honour. To do well and gain face, as in the West, be polite. Good conduct; complimenting hosts, attending meetings, participating socially, and showing an interest in Chinese culture and tradition will all help.

Building relationships

Stating your intent to form long term professional relationships will earn you greater trust, and will be more profitable, as in any professional relationship. Entertainment, gift giving and socialising are perfect for cementing the client bond. But while social/professional activity is famed in China and may enhance the relationship, know that it’s likely not the be-all-and-end-all of all deals.

Collect cards

Business cards are important in many Asian countries and should be treated as respectfully as you would treat the person themselves. Accept cards graciously, read and show an interest in them, and have your own cards to return – invest in double printed in English and Mandarin to impress!

Manage your meetings

Meetings in China are normally formal affairs, so avoid being too casual. Call people by their last names and title to be respectful. Be punctual, open to compromise as humility is a common negotiations tactic, and aim to gain control and power by providing the agenda – most pressing issues should always be discussed first.

Be wary of using humour as it’s easily mistranslated, and be aware that a ‘yes’ may not always mean that. Directly stating ‘no’ can cause loss of face, so unless you’re presented with an outright affirmative answer, be cautious. It’s also wise to do as much research as you can about the organisation prior to meeting – they’ll be doing their research on you!

Be friendly and aware of your non-verbal actions

Some westerners may assume the Chinese are a serious nation, but don’t underestimate the importance of a smile. Show friendliness, it’s wise not to be too serious or straight faced in meetings. But remember that physical contact is largely avoided, and too much eye contact may be inappropriate. Interactions vary depending on the professional relationship between people, their age and title. Lower status individuals will not maintain eye contact with their superiors out of respect – don’t assume people are being rude! 

A country that blends the traditional with the contemporary, success in Chinese markets is renowned for being based on reputation and status. But as long as they bring a little cultural awareness, understanding, respect and a willingness to acknowledge Chinese culture and tradition, most professionals will do well. Ultimately international hosts are aware of cultural difficulties and will overlook minor difference errors – ensuring you present an appealing offer is the base of business success!

Declan Mulkeen is Marketing Director at Communicaid a culture and communication skills consultancy.

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