"Chinese Meeting Etiquette" Image by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China

You can’t be too Chinese doing business in China. Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.

Chinese meeting etiquette is complicated and culturally significant, but exercising good meeting etiquette could not be more essential for business success in China. Read on and allow Allegravita to light your path, step by step:

Step 1: Getting a Chinese business or government meeting

This is China, so tough it out.

As far as China has come today, most enterprises are still state-owned. Even if a company is privately held or publicly traded, a certain degree of government influence in business operations and organizational culture could be present. Not surprisingly, for some large state-owned companies (especially those being local economic pillars), there will very likely be government officials present at every meeting. This, in turn, means the meetings are going to be harder to schedule, to choreograph and to yield a decision or go forward plan. Knowing who you are meeting with, their level, position and their role in the government, business or Party is extremely important.

In the past, we have had many clients complaining about the difficulties of getting a meeting plan scheduled (and confirmed) in China. The lǐngdǎo (the most senior government person from the Chinese side) or the lǎobǎn (the business sector equivalent) is always “busy” and plans his/her agenda not based on who scheduled a meeting first, but rather, who will bring the most benefit to his or her government organization or enterprise. Meetings are often not confirmed until the day of the meeting because the lǐngdǎos are trained in Party School to keep their options open for something better which might come along at the last moment. Unfortunately, the best advice we can give our clients in most of these situations is — This is China, tough it out. We do advise them to not take any of these issues personally or to be insulted. It is very common to not receive meeting confirmations until the last minute. Some old China hands say that the typical delays in confirmations, ambiguity of attendees and excessive formality serve China’s interests better than if the western system be adopted.

Step 2: Prepare for a Chinese meeting

When we say be prepared, we really mean it.

Ok, so you finally have a meeting date confirmed with your Chinese partners. The first thing we want you to be prepared for is knowing that Chinese meetings are very formal. Think “meeting the king and queen”, which is commonly a big cultural shock to Westerners especially in a complex culture like China. Expect to meet a substantial number of people from the other side, and what we mean by “substantial” is approximately ten or more Chinese senior attendees. Substantial is not only the number of people but the lǎobǎnyǐ (literally, the “boss chair”) and the lǐngdǎo formally siting on the other side of the table.

Like a boss. Image: Luoli Furniture

Rule #1 Never go alone. Allegravita counsels that “more is more” in China, so ensure that you have proper back-up for the meeting. Try to find out who is going to be on the Chinese side, so that you can get an idea of how many people you should bring. Try to match numbers, lest you be outnumbered and you “lose” the first round.

Rule #2 Material Support. Bring printed copies of all the materials that you have previously faxed or sent to the Chinese side as well as your business cards. Always have abundant supply. It will be quite insulting if you run short and some of the important senior members do not receive a copy. Business cards need to be in both Chinese and English. Do NOT just transliterate everything as your phonetic name in Mandarin could mean something vulgar, obscene or worse unlucky. All support material should be premium quality and finish. For help on your Chinese naming strategy, contact  Allegravita for advice.

Rule #3 Gifts create a bond and a memory, especially since the Chinese side may have trouble remembering your face and your name. It is highly recommended to bring a gift to the meeting, in fact, never attend a key or initial meeting without a gift. Gifts indicate that you are interested in building a business relationship and more importantly, it creates an obligation for the other side to at least take a second meeting with you. If the Chinese did not prepare gifts for you, that is very good because that has just created an even larger obligation. Gifts should be appropriate, preferably something that represents the country or region where you are from. Beware of the commercial value of your gift. For although sending gifts is common enough in Chinese culture, there is such thing as bribery in China. Make sure your gifts are memorable, but inexpensive (except sometimes… ask us for advice).

Step 3: Attending a Chinese meeting

You can be just as Chinese as the rest of the people in the room. We believe in you.

Upon arrival

Who is in charge?

You

Once you arrive at the building in which the meeting will take place, ask your group to line up in hierarchy because the Chinese side needs to understand who is in charge. The first is the most important. When you enter a room, the most senior person must come in first. We know it can be embarrassing in the Western context, but it is extremely important to do it the Chinese way while you are doing business there. So just be Chinese during that moment.

Them

Now you gaze around the room, find out who the lǐngdǎo or lǎobǎn is and shake hands and warmly greet him/her first. Usually he/she is the “different” one in the room, for example, seated at the very center of the room, or sitting while others are standing. Don’t worry so much about the lǐngdǎo-spotting game though, as the Chinese side will eagerly introduce you to a series of people, the most important lǐngdǎo first, then everyone else according to their positions, in descending order. One thing you need to remember at all times is that the lǐngdǎo is the most important person in the room, and he/she should alway be acknowledged first. Be patient, and wait for the lǐngdǎo to introduce his/her group and then shake the others’ hands accordingly. If there is a few people in the room that the lǐngdǎo did not introduce, that means the lǐngdǎo doesn’t think they are important or worth mentioning. Do NOT shake hands or do introductions with those people or it might cause an insult to the lǐngdǎo. Watch, listen and follow the cues of your host, just be highly observant and constantly take cues from the lǐngdǎo. Being a foreigner is actually your advantage here, since the other side will usually expect you to be disoriented, and actively guide you through the process. If they do so, just follow every instruction without questioning.

Business cards

Show business cards, show respect. Image: Allegravita.

Politely present your business cards with both hands to the lǐngdǎo, Chinese text “facing” him/her so the lǐngdǎowill be able to read it without having to turn it around. Don’t bow while presenting your business card. Bowing to everyone you meet is the Japanese and Korean tradition, which looks strange and obviously out-of-place in China. And then the rest of the contingent from the Chinese side. When presenting, ensure that the Chinese side is up for the recipient. When receiving a business card, hold the card with both hands. Pause and examine the card for some seconds before you put it down , if possible on the table top where you are seated. Note and mention their position, name, and show that you are impressed by whatever that is written on the card. Compliments and acts of respect can always increase the other person’s face, which is very beneficial in building relationships. Holding a business card with only one hand or putting it into your pocket without even looking at it is considered rude and shows that you are not taking the other person or the meeting seriously.

Seating

In China, the seat that is positioned facing the door is the seat of honor, and of course, that seat should always be reserved for the lǐngdǎo however it will frequently be offered to the leader of your delegation, as an act of respect by the Chinese side. If there are no “tent cards” for seating arrangements, it is quite appropriate to just ask the lǐngdǎo directly but politely where he/she wants you and your group to sit. It is a simple question but can help you avoid lots of trouble. Once the lǐngdǎo gives your instructions, follow it. But remember, sit after the lǐngdǎo, always.

Communication

Now finally, everyone’s sitting down, and you are feeling a bit of worn out already. We know it has taken a lot to come to this stage, but hang it there, you are only halfway.

You are in charge…

Maybe the lǐngdǎo is not that intimidating after all. Image: UK Dept of Business Innovation and Skills.

The meeting normally starts with the lǐngdǎo giving a short speech, after which you can briefly introduce yourself, your company and perhaps your products. In Chinese meetings, the bosses do all the talking. Do not defer to your subordinates as is typical in the West to ensure that you reserve the power and allow discussion. This is very atypical in China. The leader of your side is responsible for engagement, discussion and decisions. If it is a very technical question then deferral to a specialist is allowed. Otherwise, only the bosses are expected to speak during the whole meeting. One side note is to avoid telling Western jokes when you are in a conversation with the lǐngdǎo. Jokes are not appropriate during a Chinese business meeting, unless you have already established a genuine friendship or warm rapport. Plus, given that many jokes are idiomatic and culturally specific, they rarely translate across cultures and will cause confusion. As a lǐngdǎo, not being able to do something is considered a big loss of face, for example: failing to get the punchline of a foreign joke. Worse still is if someone else present gets it. So, for safe play, just don’t try this stunt.

Present your gift towards the end of the meeting. Same as business cards, you should also give and receive gifts with both hands. Actually, this “both hands” trick is a part of Confucianism that says “I’m doing this with all my respect”. Some old-fashioned folks even shake hands with both hands. Don’t appear to be surprised if the lǐngdǎo at the meeting does this to you. And don’t try Chinese hand shaking 2.0 on your own initiative either. Just see what they do, and react. Before the meeting is dismissed, if possible, always try to get a photo with the lǐngdǎo, he/she can’t say no. Or more likely, he/she will ask before you do. Many times, the whole delegation is in the photo as a group. It is a strategically important approach as it helps the meeting to end in a good atmosphere and assists your follow-up with the lǐngdǎo after the meeting. One week later, you can send the lǐngdǎo this photo and remind him/her of you and your company. It will greatly increase the chance of you getting another meeting.Finally, the meeting is over, because the lǐngdǎo says so. You and your group leave the meeting room in the hierarchy order, with you being the first.

Step 4: What happens after a Chinese meeting

Know the secret.

The meeting went well, and now you are relieved it is all over. But before you go back to the hotel and get yourself a strong drink, there is one very important thing that you need to do — debrief the interpreter. Why? Because you want to know how the meeting really went. The interpreter is the only person that understood everything that just happened in that meeting room: the chit-chat between the lǐngdǎo and the guy next him, or the phone call one of the Chinese officials made right after you guys discussed prices. Naturally, the interpreter would always tell you that everything was perfect even if it was not because he/she wants to make you feel good and give you lots of face. So in this case, you need to be persistent and praise your interpreter hard for truthful and useful information. This is incredibly valuable and insightful information you have paid for but need to ask for in order to get. Also you might want to brief the interpreter before the meeting, tell him/her to record every conversation among the Chinese guys, just in case the interpreter just wants to do a quick job and be over with it.

You can’t rush China and you don’t have the guānxì you think you do.

Don’t get discouraged or frustrated if no business deal was made during that meeting. You have to understand that for the Chinese, business is never to be done at the first meeting with some foreigners who they’ve just met. In China, the importance of building personal relationships with business partners and getting to know one another can not be overemphasized. What you ought to do now is again, to be patient, wait for a week, send the lǐngdǎo the photo you took together (both a beautifully framed printed-out copy as well as the digital file), and then try to schedule a second meeting. Take one step at a time, and you will be close to successfully getting your business done in China.

Please feel free to reach out to  Allegravita for support in developing your business in China, or to help guide a recovery after a series of missteps.

 

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