8 ways not to screw up Chinese business etiquette

Pro tip: Avoid Ghost Month
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8 fascinating facts about job interviews in China

After reading about the 9 Steps to the Confident “Hire Me” handshake, a Ladders reader wrote in for help with an upcoming interview business trip to China. As more companies explore doing business in China— and Mandarin becomes popular for sophisticated professionals — understanding the business customs of the growing nation can be a big boost. 

As a first-time visitor to China, our reader wondered how to greet the person interviewing him, his hiring manager and others on the team. More than that, he wondered if the etiquette is the same as in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

We asked Stefan Verstappen, author of Chinese Business Etiquette, for some quick tips on the topic.

Don’t worry

Since Chinese culture in general can be incredibly nuanced and complicated, Verstappen suggested not worrying about every detail since even most modern Chinese businesspeople don’t know or adhere to every small detail. China’s business culture is a growing one and etiquette is still being smoothed out. 

Wait to shake

When meeting people for the first time, your safest bet is to wait until the person in authority offers to shake hands– and then follow their lead. Verstappen explains that the “Chinese didn’t use to touch each other at all when meeting, and instead used to bow with the right fist inside the left hand.”  In fact, “Close physical contact wasn’t part of their tradition but was adopted during the turn of the century, and even more so the more Westernized they become.” As things evolved, Verstappen says “It used to be you would only shake hands with men, not with women” since it wasn’t considered appropriate to touch women at all. “As China becomes more modernized, women continue to demand to become active in business culture.” So, what does all this evolving etiquette mean for you? “Your best bet is to wait until they offer to shake hands, and if not, don’t.”

Follow the leader

You don’t have to worry about being perceived as being rude or ignorant. Verstappen explains “in China, all social obligations are on the host. It’s not your job to try to make connections. You’re there as a guest, so it’s up to them to make connections with you.” Which is a huge relief if you’re already nervous about making a great impression.

Bow down

Meanwhile, if someone bows to you, you don’t necessarily have to follow suit, surprisingly. It really depends on the situation. Verstappen says that bowing back is fine, especially since a majority of the time it won’t be a formal bow, but rather more of a nod.

“If they do a big bow, it’s probably because it’s a formal occasion like a state dinner, so you can bow in return.” As for that small bow that’s more of a nod? Verstappen says “The head nod is sometimes a nervous thing” and you can almost ignore it if you’re unsure how to react.   

Speak up and observe hierarchy

And don’t worry about speaking if in fact you’re there to give the presentation. When you do though, start by addressing the most senior person in the room.

As Verstappen puts it “seniority has seniority,” so they’ll probably be the first ones to do the talking, “unless they delegate it to one of the secretaries.”

He also refers to the differences in deferential attitude paid to those with age and experience in China vs. Western countries: “If you’re addressing a group of people, you should always address the oldest person first, even if the oldest person isn’t the boss.” Verstappen continues, “Here in the West, the older you are, the more useless you become. In China, the older you become the wiser you are, the more deference you receive. Talk first to the oldest person, even if it’s a few words, and then talk to the boss.”

Drink the same amount as your host does 

To be on the safe side, you should always limit what you drink. Verstappen says “Typically, they will have a toast to you.” At that point “The senior person at the table, or the boss will raise a glass to you. They’ll hold it in their right hand and will use the fingers of their left hand to touch the bottom of the glass. Two hands must touch the glass, they’ll raise it up to you and say something.” And in case you’re wondering how much drinking is okay, you should take your cue from your host and “Drink as much as the host does. If he downs it, you down it; if he takes a sip, then you take a sip.”

You won’t screw up

Relax. No matter how badly you think you goofed, you probably didn’t. Verstappen assures us that in China, “they understand that you don’t get their culture and because you’re not Chinese you’re exempt from the protocols.”

That said, you will get brownie points for making an effort: “Knowing some protocols and etiquette and how to interact with your Chinese hosts goes a long way toward advancing your reputation.” So, while you’re okay no matter what you do, if you actually take the time to learn some Chinese business customs, “their opinion of you will be vastly improved.”

Keep luck on your side

Verstappen explains that the Chinese can be very superstitious, so whatever you do, “Don’t do anything unlucky. You can screw up on the protocols or the etiquette, but if you do something unlucky that’s taken as a sign.”

As cultures evolve, Verstappen says that even Chinese people in engineering and tech hold onto some superstitions. They figure it’s better to be safe.”

To that end:

  • Don’t wrap a gift in white paper: If you’re bringing a gift for your host, or send a thank you follow up, don’t wrap it in white paper since “white paper is for funerals” according to Verstappen. A better bet is to use red giftwrap since red is considered a lucky color.
  • Avoid fours in any form: In Chinese, the word for four is nearly identical to the word for death, so try not to bring four of anything to a meeting or appointment. In fact, you may notice that there’s no 14th floor in some Chinese building. Guess JAY-Z’s management team didn’t take that into account when naming his latest release.
  • Don’t close deals during Ghost Month: Unlike Shark Week, Ghost Month lives beyond the confines of popular culture. While it’s not necessarily part of everyday belief, Verstappen explains that Ghost Month is a time in the late summer or early fall when hell releases all the ghosts, and they want to eat from the living. So, you might see fully set tables with elaborate meals set up in front of people’s homes, enticing potentially malevolent wandering spirits to dine outside and avoid making mischief for the locals. While it’s an older tradition that’s starting to fade, many people are still skittish about closing deals during Ghost Month, since all business deals during that time are considered unlucky.

*Incidentally, 8 is considered a good luck number in China and the symbol for eternity. Use it often. 

Rachel Weingarten is a marketing & brand strategist and president of 729.marketing. She's a pop culture and trends analyst who frequently writes about business and style and the business of style. Rachel's a sometimes professor, teaching personal branding on the graduate and undergraduate levels. She leads corporate seminars on topics including evolving communication and spirituality in the workplace. Rachel is also the author of three award winning non-fiction books.