Cultural mistakes in China

Top Three Mistakes Expats Make When Moving To China: Part 2

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We have already seen some common cultural mistakes that emerge when expats first take the plunge and move to China. However, when the time comes to do business in China, this can also bring it’s own nuances and rules that may be foreign to an expat.


Losing face

The concept of ‘losing face’ is extremely important in China, or rather the art of not losing face. So what exactly is it? Essentially it is the practice of giving respect where due and not causing any embarassment to the other person. This is one of the most important rules within Chinese society and must be abided at all times. For example, if you decide to buy gifts for people in your department, you must buy something far more valuable for senior members. To receive the same gift as everyone else will result in ‘losing face’ and great embarassment for all. The same goes with discussion. In a Western business environment, it might not be unusual to see someone lose their temper in the office or shout at a colleague. In fact, we are quite used to having arguments on a daily basis, whether it is about receiving the correct change in a shop, complaining or someone cutting you off in traffic. Yet in China, to directly shout at someone in front of others results in both people ‘losing face’. This is really quite the taboo and should be avoided at all costs, no matter how frustrated you may be. In the same vein, you must address people by their proper title. In Europe particularly, it is de rigeur to call managers and directors by their first name. Anything else would seem strange and very formal. However, in order not to ‘lose face’ in China, you must not call anyone by their first name unless they tell you to. You must always preface with their position, such as Director or Manager.

Cultural mistakes in China

Cultural mistakes in China


Respecting those around you

This is another area where certain formalities come into play. The first that should be noted is that you should not compliment anyone on their level of English. It might be entirely normal in a Western business context, and even something very complimentary. In China, it can be seen as insulting that you cannot find anything else to compliment or that you are surprised that a Chinese person can speak English. Running alongside this, it is quite common in business cultures in the Mediterranean for example, for colleagues to hug, high-five or even kiss one another on the cheek. This should be entirely avoided in China, more so between men and women.

Another way of showing respect is to stand up when other people enter the room. This may be considered to be extremely formal in many business cultures, but it is to be expected in China. Once a meeting or introduction is concluded, you must allow your Chinese colleagues to leave first. On a similar note, meeting rooms will be organised in order of seniority, rather than teams being allowed to sit where they like. It is best to wait and someone will show you to your place, so you do not risk offending anyone in the room.

Business cards in China, as in Japan, are extremely important and should also be handled with respect. It is a good idea to buy a small case to keep cards in as putting it in your wallet can be deemed to be quite rude. You must read the name and title on the card, as ignoring it will cause the other person to ‘lose face’ and you will appear disrespectful. Accept the card with both hands and when you give out your card, ensure it faces the other person so that they can read it.

Cultural mistakes in China

Cultural mistakes in China


Dining etiquette in China

Dining with colleagues is a common occurrence in China and it brings it’s own brand of etiquette. It may be of some surprise that business is not a topic to be discussed at the dinner table, unless you are invited to by the host. As we covered earlier, there are also some topics that should be avoided for risk of offending the guests, such as politics, death and cultural history.

Normally, the person inviting people to eat (usually the most senior member) will order the dishes, although as a foreigner you may be given the opportunity to order some for yourself. Once the food arrives, you should not begin eating or drinking before the host, no matter how hungry you are or how long you may have waited. You should make the effort to try a little of everything, and the host will guide you to what he believes are the best dishes. This is a display of his hospitality and prosperity and should always be accepted.

Whatever you do, do not gesture with your chopsticks and do not put them upright in a bowl. Rest them over the plate, without pointing them in the air. This can be seen as a symbol of a curse towards your colleagues, or impending death.


What other tips can you think of when doing business abroad? Comment below with your advice!

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