Being the “World’s Factory” and a rising center of innovation, China has been one of the most popular markets for trading, especially for sourcing. A simple search on Google reveals countless articles teaching westerners about how to behave in China, but in many cases, reading these as a native Chinese, my reaction is more like “What? I have never heard that” and “Heh? that’s not true”. Here are two outdated stereotypes. “Chinese people make loud noises when eating to show that the food is delicious”. It might be true when you eat noodles, or you’re dealing with people older than 40 years old. Younger and more educated Chinese do care about table manners. Another example is “Chinese people eat dogs”. No, we do not. It happened decades ago because of starvation. Nowadays, there is one village which has a “dog meat” festival every year, receiving a lot of protests and criticism. Of course, there are some typical Chinese behaviours, however, China is a vast land with somewhat different customs in different regions. For example, people from northern China in general are considered more straightforward and less mindful about social formalities than people from the south. But again, every individual is different. As a southern Chinese, I hope I could give you some insights from my perspective regarding how to behave culturally in business settings, especially when dealing with Chinese suppliers.
面子(mian zi)/“Face” means "the social status, reputation or prestige gained by an individual in society". To “give face” to someone in general means to protect his/her image and reputation, sometimes can be interpreted as “do me a favour and don’t embarrass me in public” or “do me a favour because of who I am”. The "face culture" is an important part of traditional Chinese culture, which is permeated in the behaviour and habits of the Chinese people and has greatly influenced the daily social life of the Chinese people. It is related to the traditional Confucian culture, the culture of shame and the importance of connections in the Chinese society.
In order to “give face” or to protect people from losing face, public criticism should be avoided. Criticising a boss/manager in front of his/her employees is one of the worst things you can do. Criticism should be done in private with genuity and diplomacy, e.g. give compliments before pointing out room for improvements) . Another thing is that, when asked to do something by a person of important position in a group, be it singing or drinking during business dinners, try to fulfil it, even if not at 100%. Saying no in this situation can be seen as embarrassing and spoiling, while going along with it shows grace and sincerity of cooperation.
The ones who are willing to go for an extra mile, here is a suggestion. Learn a Chinese song (doesn’t have to be a full one). For example, Friends by Wakin Chau is perfect at business dinners or in Karaoke (very popular in China). Sing the lyrics from 1:05 to 1:35 in the following video, the Chinese will love you.
(Lyrics translation: Friends walk together all their lives, these days won't come back, one sentence, one lifetime, one love, one glass of wine. Friends are never lonely. One word “ friend", you will understand. Still have wounds, still have pain, still need to walk, you still have me.)
Business table manners are representative of the Chinese “face culture”. Here are some tips to keep in mind, so you can “give face”:
China has been a country of etiquette since ancient times, and traditionally pays much attention to courtesy and reciprocity of gifts. Therefore, gift-giving has also become the most expressive way of communication and has become an art in Chinese culture. It is typical for potential/current business partners to exchange gifts, preferably the ones that represent each other’s unique cultures. As a westerner, you may receive delicate embroidery, paintings, tea sets, Chinese spirits (alcohol) and so on from the Chinese side. You may prepare local wine and artworks in return. For example, my previous boss (Chinese) was very happy to receive Riesling, whiskey, cigars and Eastern Bunny chocolates (not all of those at the same time) from the German partners. The thoughts put into the gifts are more important than the value and price. Both accepting gifts and giving gifts are considered to “give face”. When receiving and giving gifts, always use both hands to show respect and appreciation.
The Chinese are diligent workers and normally don’t mind talking about business after office hours, even during public holidays and personal vacation. That’s one of the reasons why there is the “Chinese speed”. A lot of Chinese would agree that making sure businesses run smoothly comes before drinking ice-cold beer at the beach. Actually during public holidays, which are usually Chinese festivals, it is the perfect time to reinforce partnerships or to start forming some. Because those are justifiable days for people to pay visits to people and give gifts.
Don’t worry if you cannot check all the boxes and don’t stress too much when you make some mistakes, because you have a “foreigner’s pass”! The Chinese are very forgiving because you are not from China and do not expect you to behave that “Chinese”. However, if you could keep some of those above mentioned points in mind, people in China would be gladly surprised and you will be a star businessman/woman in China.