Any preconceived notion of China by Western businesspeople is a falsification, for China is infinitely more complex a place than can be imagined.
Eden Collinsworth should know. She moved to Beijing in 2011, launched an intercultural communication consultancy, and wrote a best-selling Western etiquette guide for Chinese businesspeople -- learning a whole lot about her herself in the process. She compiles her experiences in a new book out today, “I Stand Corrected: How Teaching Western Manners in China Became Its Own Unforgettable Lesson.”
Do you think these same cultural mistakes can be made in Vietnam too?
Here, she reveals those top 10 trip-ups and cultural hiccups that may mar your next business trip -- and how to avoid them. (Step one: don’t forget those bi-lingual business cards.) You're probably making a mistake in China if you are:
1. Expecting a standard concept of time
The definition of time in China does not necessarily designate when one hour gives way to the next. For example, noon -- to a Westerner, as definite a time as any other -- is employed by the Chinese as a two-hour period from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
2. Mistaking loud voices as a sign of hostility
Author Eden Collingsworth giving a lecture in Beijing to the government-sponsored business group “All China Women’s Federation.” Source: Eden Collingsworth
It could be the sheer number of people in China trying to have their say, or a quirk of the language, but for whatever reason, the Chinese speak several decibels higher than is comfortable for Westerns.
3. Misconstruing Chinese displays of deference
Though shaking hands comes naturally to Westerners, it is not always a comfortable practice for the Chinese who consider bonhomie impolite and disrespectful. Most Chinese offer a weak handshake and little more than reserve during their greetings. Don’t take offense.
4. Underestimating the importance of exchanging business cards before meetings
A double-sided Western business card with simplified Chinese on one side is the first indication of respect toward your Chinese counterpart; its conspicuous absence is not unlike refusing to shake hands at the start of a Western business meeting. Even if you are familiar with the title and position of the person to whom you have been introduced, study his card, and then deliberately place it within clear sight if you are sitting at a table.
5. Not coming to terms with “guanxi”
Like most idioms, guanxi is not easily translated into a single word that mirrors its meaning. “Relationships or connections outside the family” is the closest one might come to the meaning of what is at the very core of Chinese society and culture. It is, therefore, important for the Chinese to get to know the person or people with whom they wish to conduct business before business is conducted -- the how, why, and when things are done all rests on these relationships.
6. Thinking a meal in China is just a meal
No doubt you will be invited to lunch or dinner during which time it will be considered rude to discuss any business. But that doesn’t mean the meal isn’t without a business goal. (Because: guanxi.) Don’t be surprised if people who have not been in any of the business meetings you’ve attended appear at the dining table.
7. Forgetting table etiquette
"I Stand Corrected: How Teaching Western Manners in China Became Its Own Unforgettable Lesson" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) out now. Click here for list of online stores.
They believe luck is brought with good table manners and shame is the result of bad. From a Western perspective, there is always too much food at the table (a sign of the host’s prosperity), but try each dish. Be sure to accept the last serving of what the host has pointed out as the best dish, which he has offered you as a sign of his hospitality.
8. Passing on a toast
What fails to happen can matter as much as what happens, and declining anything from one’s host in China -- even with a seemingly legitimate excuse -- throws a gloom over a meal. If you don’t wish to drink, make your excuses early, before the toasts begin.
9. Taking probing questions as an insult
The Chinese’s total lack of inhibition can be the refreshing opposite of our politically correct (and often spontaneity-killing) approach to conversation. It turns out the Chinese are capable of asking what most people want to know but, with the exception of small children, are afraid to ask. Be prepared for social conversation that is often stunningly taboo-free. If a man, you might be asked about your financial assets; if a woman, you will undoubtedly be asked about your marital status.
10. Forgetting that dignity trumps money (always)
Keeping face to the Chinese is paramount; losing it, disastrous; taking it away from someone else, unforgivable. Any form of refusal costs face, which is the reason one should not be direct in saying no in China. Conversely, one should never assume a yes in China is reliable, for the Chinese “yes” is a transitory, flexible concept. Even in neo-capitalist China, dignity is an infinitely more important a commodity than money.