Business Etiquette Around the World: China

According to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), China is expected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s most dominant business travel market as early as 2016. With Chinese business expected to be a growing revenue source for many U.S. companies, chances are you may find yourself in China in the near future. So if you’re headed to Asia’s largest economy (which comprises 60% of the world’s population!), here is our advice for navigating business dealings while you’re there!

Shanghai China


Appearance is important, and the Chinese believe if you want to be successful, you need to look successful! Simple, modest clothing works best — avoid packing anything overly flashy, pretentious or bright. Check weather conditions before you leave and pack accordingly; China is a big place and it can veer from sub-tropical to freezing, depending on time of year and location.

Ladies: Keep your backs covered and avoid low necklines, short skirts, heavy makeup or dangling, “gaudy” jewelry. The Chinese frown on women who wear revealing clothing. Most Chinese businesswomen wear conservative business suits or dresses. Even high heels can give off the wrong impression! Flats or shoes with a very low heel are probably your safest bet.

Men: Sport coats and ties are acceptable in the winter, slacks and open-necked shirts are generally acceptable in warmer weather (no jacket or tie necessary).

Introductions are quite formal — address the person with their professional title and surname until advised otherwise. You’ll probably shake hands with your Chinese associates, and don’t be shy about holding on if your counterpart is enjoying the contact (it is meant well!). If you know who the most senior person in the room is, address them first.  Also, the Chinese are very keen about exchanging business cards after the initial introduction, so keep these tips in mind:

      • Ensure that one side is in English and the other is in Mandarin. It’s also a bonus to have the Mandarin side printed in gold ink as the Chinese view gold as the color of prosperity.

      • Hold the card in both hands when offering your card, Chinese side facing the recipient.

      • Accept others’ cards with both hands and with a slight bow — even if the card is in Mandarin and you can’t read Mandarin, study the card for moment. Then, offer a second head bow after reading it to show acknowledgement and respect.

      • Never write on a business card or put it in your wallet or pocket. Carry a small card case instead.

The Chinese prefer face-to-face communications, and if you can speak some Mandarin (or even a few key words), even better! It’s common for Chinese businesspeople to ask some private questions such as your age, salary, marital status, etc. If you don’t want to reveal that information, remain polite and give an unspecific answer with a pleasant smile. In general, keep the conversation light and airy (no probing questions about family, Chinese art and culture, etc.) and refrain from talking about Taiwan, communism or the government. It’s important to note that the Chinese don’t use many hand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions when speaking — so try to keep animation at bay.

Business is rarely discussed during business meals. Whomever hosts foots the bill, but don’t show money in front of your guests. In general, tipping is not necessary — in fact, many establishments in China have a strict no-tipping policy. Some important information about table manners:

      • Don’t be surprised if a Chinese person makes slurping or belching sounds; it merely indicates that they are enjoying their food.

      • The host offers the first toast and begins eating first.

      • When sharing food or drink, offer to serve others before you serve yourself.

      • Learn how to use chopsticks (there’s really no way around this!), because chances are, there will be no other utensils in sight — they should be returned to the chopstick rest (not on top of the bowl or in it) after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.

      • Unless you’re allergic to it or it’s against your religion, try to be a good sport and sample everything that is offered to you — otherwise you could come across rude.

      • Never take the last piece of anything (unless your host offers) — this is actually considered bad luck and you could come across greedy.

Gift-giving is a common Chinese business custom. Gifts should be modest and not too expensive — the best gifts are specialty items from the U.S. Do not give flowers as the Chinese associate them with funerals. Clocks, scissors and other sharp items like knives or letter openers are also no-no’s. Always present a gift with two hands and do not wrap them in white, blue or black paper. Gifts are not opened when received and can be refused up to three times before they are accepted.

The Chinese are non-confrontational and like to keep the peace. This can make negotiations quite tricky since they find it extremely difficult to say ‘no.’ Thus anything other than an unequivocal ‘yes’ probably means ‘no.’ When scheduling your appointments, be sensitive to holidays such as the Chinese New Year, which changes yearly. Being late for an appointment is considered an insult, so plan your itinerary with time to spare to account for the vagaries of Chinese transportation and traffic.

Meetings require patience — decisions may take a long time (bureaucracy is not uncommon in China) and small talk is important, especially at the beginning. Mobile phones will ring frequently (never ask the Chinese to turn off their phones!) and whatever you do, keep your cool — any displays of high-pressure sales tactics, anger, anxiety or impatience will not go over well with your Chinese associates!

Do you have any other business etiquette tips you’d like to share about China? Let us know in the comments below; we’d love to hear from you

Safe Travels!