Expanding overseas

8 etiquette tips for doing business in China

4 min read


Whether it’s part of your search for investment money or a straight out expansion of your customer-base, the Chinese market holds plenty of potential for New Zealand businesses. However, cultural differences can prove tricky to navigate for traditionally laid-back Kiwis. It’s a big place, often with regional variations thrown in for good measure. With that in mind, here are eight tips for doing business in China.

1. Shake hands the right way

Relationships are particularly important in Chinese business circles so it’s important to get off to a good start, and that means shaking hands. Whereas New Zealanders tend to stick out a hand, in China there are a number of little details you need to get right in order to avoid offending the people you’re meeting.

First, if you’re the guest meeting a host, wait for them to offer their hand. Likewise, when leaving, it’s your turn to go first. If there’s more than one person, always start with the most senior person and work your way down the hierarchy. With those basics under your belt, here are a few things to avoid: never shake hands with a hand in a pocket; never shake with the left hand; never shake while wearing a hat, gloves or sunglasses; never shake absent-mindedly and never shake hands while seated (unless disabled).

2. Make sure you get the names right

In China, family names come first, followed by given names. If you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to ask the person you’re meeting what you should call them. When it comes to your own name, always introduce yourself using your full name, and if the occasion is more formal, give them your title and perhaps even your place of work.

3. Business card etiquette

After getting the handshakes and names right, it’s more than likely time to exchange business cards. In China, this is less of a convenient way of exchanging contact details and more an essential ritual - come prepared with a good supply. Cards should be clean and neat and, if you plan on doing a lot of business in China, a Chinese translation on the reverse side will go a long way towards establishing a good relationship.

When actually exchanging cards, offer yours, one person at a time, standing up, while holding it with both hands between thumb and forefinger. Never toss your card to the recipient and, when receiving a card, pay it the appropriate amount of respect by reading it through. Never write on it or stick it in your back pocket.

 4. On superstitions

Some Chinese business people will be sensitive to certain numbers and colours so it’s worth your while to memorise a few of the more common trouble spots. Here’s a brief list of the good and the bad.
Lucky numbers: 6, 8, 9
Unlucky numbers: 4

The colour red represents good luck, prosperity, joy and happiness and is therefore often used at festivals and weddings. However, avoid at all costs writing names in red ink, you’re sure to cause offence by doing that. The colour gold is a very important part of the Chinese culture as gold is a symbol of lavishness, associated with the emperors.

5. What’s the dress code?

For Chinese business people, it’s all about respect. Being well dressed is one such sign of respect, so you should dress formally for all business occasions - that means suits for men and women and ties for men. Not all business meetings will be formal, however, so once the initial meetings are out of the way, prepare for such occasions and dress down appropriately. Ask ahead of time if you’re unsure what to wear.

6. The art of saving face

Saving face is an important aspect of Chinese culture and usually revolves around avoiding conflict and helping people retain their dignity. As much as it’s about you looking out for yourself, in China, it’s important you’re aware of any potential strife your hosts may find themselves in. Always be ready to step in with a kind word to ease tension if, say, some travel arrangements have been botched. Other ways to help save face is to always respect their lines of seniority and arrive on time for meetings. Just basic good manners, really.

7. Read the body language

Touching is, in general, disliked in China, so avoid back slaps and hugs and such. It’s also considered rude to put your feet up on a desk or chair as is clicking your fingers or whistling. If you think back to all the things your school teachers told you not to do in class, you’ll be well on your way to not offending your Chinese hosts.

8. Learn the language

The Chinese, as do the occupants of most countries, will appreciate the efforts you make to learn the language. Learn a few basics to get you through, even if it’s only a smattering of words, it’ll go a long way toward helping build those all important business relationships.

We wish you xìngyùn doing business in China!

BNZ can help you identify opportunities in the Chinese market, connect you with key contacts, advice you on import and export, and support you with full banking services including trade finance. Check out our full Asia Business offering.