Moving to China could be an expat’s dream. With attractive packages to work in established companies, a booming economy and a fascinating culture, China has much to offer for those seeking a life abroad. Once there, it can be easy to fall into a trap of comfort and security within the expat bubble, not knowing that you may inadvertently be causing problems for yourself. With a culture that can be entirely opposite to your own, watch out for these three mistakes that could set your Chinese dream back.
Miscommunication in China
Topics that we normally discuss with abandon at home with our family and friends, even our workmates, can be entirely taboo in China. You may tread carefully around politics, especially considering our fragile political climate today. Where you come from the money topic may be avoided like the plague. Employing some common sense in China goes a long way, but you need to keep in mind that certain topics are off limits. One of the most notable is the tricky, volatile and extremely controversial relationship between China and Japan. Under no circumstances must you compare China with Japan. This can cause mortal offence to your Chinese colleagues. The same goes for Chinese historical or political matters. This can be treacherous water and is better left out of a conversation. Another slightly less obvious taboo is the theme of death. Chinese culture is extremely portentous, and death is something that is not discussed openly. White is associated with death, much like black in other countries, so avoid presenting your Chinese friends with gifts in the color white.
The giving of gifts
Gifts themselves often present challenges to expats in China. Whilst we are accustomed to giving gifts at birthdays and at Christmas, in China offering gifts can be successful in breaking the ice and building interpersonal relations. If you are invited to stay with a Chinese family, it is entirely appropriate to offer a gift. Travelling for business may also mean that you might want to offer a gift to your co-workers when you arrive. These presents may be refused at first, due to the desire to show humility and avoid the appearance of greed. However, it is equally ill mannered to refuse a gift, so continue to offer and it will be accepted. It is commonly accepted that you should avoid offering flowers to your Chinese hosts. Many types of flowers are believed to bring bad luck, and certain colors should also be avoided, depending on the region. The same goes for numbers and you should avoid the number four at all costs. This is also associated with death, as the Chinese word for ‘four’ sounds like the same word for death. On the other hand, eight is extremely lucky.
Paying in China
Paying is also a complicated area to navigate in China. To begin with, if you are invited to lunch or dinner, it is expected that the eldest or most senior of the group is the host and will pay for those invited. Bills are not normally shared, and it is a grave offence to offer to pay for your share of the bill. The exception to this is if you have invited your guests, whereby the same rules will apply. You will be expected to pay for yourself and your invitees.
In the West, we are largely used to tipping quite heavily for certain services, especially in restaurants. In China, this is a practice that is generally not observed so at the end of a meal, you will not be expected to leave any money. However, if you have a private guide or driver, you may want to tip them as this will form part of their salary, as it does in many other countries.
Join us for the second part of our guide to cultural mistakes in China. This time, we will be talking business!