The dress code in China
“Dress to impress”, a timeless old saying, applies also in today’s business environment because it is always important. In China you also need to dress properly for business meeting. Basically, your outfit should be clean and fit you well, because if you look sloppy, even before you open your mouth your Chinese partners will assume that your business is sloppy too.
However, in the new technology sectors, suits and ties are now becoming less mandatory because these are the most “young” business environments and dress code is more casual there. On the other hand, if you need to negotiate with bankers, government representatives or high level managers, you will notice that dress code is just as extremely formal as in Western standards.
Pay particular attention to the colour symbolism: in China, yellow is associated with prosperity, gold with felicity, and red is used in celebrations. Remember to never use red ink to write cards or letters as it symbolizes the end of a relationship.
The proper physical contact
While most of European cultures are used to physical contact, the majority of people in China are not keen on it, especially while doing business.
During a business meeting, body language and movement should always be calm (well-collected and controlled), since in China a self-controlled person gains respect from others for his or her formal and attentive body posture. Therefore, a stiff posture and little body language on your part can raise many questions from your Chinese partners. It can raise suspicions that you are trying to deceive or are hiding something from them.
Normally, a meeting starts and ends with handshakes, and, as we explained in previous lessons, business cards are exchanged at the beginning of the meeting.
Normally your Chinese partner with the highest rank will be officially introduced by someone else (e.g. an interpreter), and you should acknowledge him or her especially for the greetings (Hello and Goodbye).
Make sure you give a good, cool and firm handshake, which is often accompanied by a slight bow (just a nod of the head or a bow from head: not a Japanese bow from the waist). Give and receive business cards with both your hands, and pay attention not to use barriers such as folding your arms, as this will make you look too closed and reserved. So when you speak, use nice open gestures. Never embrace or slap a Chinese associate on the back unless you know them very well.
More insights on initial talks
The typical “blank” facial expression that a Chinese may show during introductions is not a sign of unfriendliness or dissatisfaction but a mere reflection of the Chinese belief that to conceal emotions is a virtue.
When receiving a business card from a Chinese businessperson, take it with both your hands and compliment the card; be sure to keep it on the table in front of you for the entire meeting.
Chinese eye contact is the opposite of the Western eye contact. In China to look directly into someone’s eyes while talking is not a sign of paying attention but being aggressive and impolite, so usually during conversations the Chinese will avoid eye contact as much as possible, and as a sign of respect they will sometimes lower their eyelids slightly when they talk to others, especially someone they have just met.
When meeting someone for the first time for a business meeting, you should be prepared to engage in general conversation before turning to the real business.
Conversation topics in an office, a fair or in a restaurant can range from more formal to less formal, and casual conversation topics in China differ from those in the Western world.
In China, it is not impolite to ask about a person’s job, annual salary, marital/dating status or age. Remember that the Chinese do not look for detailed answers for these casual topics, because for them the details of your answers are not as important as your willingness to respond. On the other hand, Western style icebreakers such as discussions about Sino-Japanese relations or Chinese minority riots will often create extreme discomfort for your Chinese partners.
Last but not least, many common Western gestures, such as finger snapping, whistling to get someone’s attention, or showing the soles of shoes as well as blowing your nose, even if gently, are considered very rude in China. So refrain yourself from using any gestures of this kind in a business meeting.
During the first encounter it may happen that your business partner already has ongoing negotiations with your competitor, or the Chinese business partner may is test his compatibility with you and may not seem deeply interested in cooperating with you, but this is just a part of his business game.
Presenting yourself and your organization in the most attractive way and giving a very good first impression to a Chinese person will be the key to turn a simple business meeting into a profitable, sustainable and thriving business partnership.
Note: First impressions in China make a big difference and it is better to learn and train proper etiquette as described above to help you starting business in China.
Rane, Jordan (October, 2012). “How to make a good first impression in Asia”.
Retrieved from: travel.cnn.com/good-first-impression-asia-131896
Mu Qian, Meng FanMao (July, 2014). “A comparative study of body language between China and the West”
Retrieved from: http://www.davidpublishing.com/show.html?16983
- How to dress in China (video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RqenJBn3oU
- Canadian Trade Commissioner Service: http://www.tradecommissioner.gc.ca/eng/document.jsp?did=107932