|TWO-WAY TRADE between the United States and China exceeds $100
billion each year and it is poised to grow as China joins the
World Trade Organization. As more companies sell or make more
products and services in China, our technical professionals have
begun to realize that success in doing business in China requires
more than having the right technology or expertise. Just as there
are technical standards such as ASTMs for quality and testing,
there are also standards of behavior, which are essential to building
a successful business relationship.
Even first-rate engineers, scientists, and managers can lose an
audience and waste their time and resources if they are unable
to communicate effectively across borders and between cultures.
Often, engineers and scientists pay attention solely to what they
view as the job at hand, while giving little thought to their
It is only natural that as we go about conducting business, each
of us understands and is comfortable with our own cultural norms.
When we do business abroad, however, we must be mindful that there
are standards of behavior that are different from ours. Hence,
when doing business in China, Americans tend to communicate with
the Chinese using our own standards of behavior, meanwhile many American procedures,
body language, and values are not the same as those expected by
Since 1980, I have worked with hundreds of American technical
professionals and managers in doing business in China. I have
watched many misunderstandings arise because of differences in
standards of behavior between Americans and the Chinese people.
Here are 15 practical dos and donts that can help you avoid some all-too-common
1. Respect the business card.
The Chinese place a great deal of emphasis on the formality of
exchanging business cards.
When Chinese individuals give their cards to someone, they often
present it with both hands. To be courteous, you should receive
business cards with both hands. Never put the card away immediately
in your wallet or briefcase. Rather, place the card on the table
or hold it in your hand for some time to acknowledge it and show
that you care to know who they are.
The Chinese are a very status-conscious people. Make an effort
to recognize peoples rank in their organizations.
Make sure that you have plenty of business cards of your own before
you go to China. It is advisable to translate your name and title
into Chinese. Everything else can stay in English.
2. Smile. Dont look too serious.
A smile to the Chinese is like a handshake among Westerners. It
is the most common means of communication in China when people
meet. The Chinese view a smile as a friendly gesture. Smiling
is universal in China.
In short, a smile is not a sign of weakness. So dont look too
seriousyou may get off on the wrong foot.
3. Learn to talk metric.
For technical professionals, it is important to be conversant
in both metric and English measurements. Present your charts,
tables, data, and transparencies in both English and metric units.
Your audience will appreciate and understand you better this way.
4. Dont expect much eye contact.
Americans expect steady eye contact when talking with people.
This is a behavior considered basic and essential. But it is not
the case in China.
For the Chinese, a lack of steady eye contact is not an indication
of lack of attention or respect. On the contrary, because of the
authoritarian nature of the Chinese society, steady eye contact
is viewed as inappropriate, especially when subordinates talk
with their superiors.
Eye contact is sometimes viewed as a gesture of challenge or defiance;
so the Chinese often talk while looking downward.
5. Make friends first, do business later.
Americans pride themselves on getting straight to the point. We
want to cut to the chase. We havent got all day. This is not
the Chinese way at all.
The Chinese like small talk and pleasantries. They want to learn
more about you. Initial meetings are rarely expected to produce
results. One salesman took seven trips before he got a retailer
to carry his merchandise. A Chinese chief engineer told my client
that he should make friends first before worrying about doing
Chinese sales people routinely wine and dine prospects before
they sit down to talk business. It is not in your self-interest
to cut to the chase too fast. Let people feel connected with
you before you proceed.
6. Speak slowly.
Because English is the international language of commerce, we
often forget how hard it is for non-English speakers to understand
Sometimes we dont even realize that we are speaking a mile a
minute. The result can be that we lose our audience. It does not
matter how superb your expertise or ideas are if you cant convey
them in ways the Chinese can understand. Slow down when you speak.
The Chinese do not like asking people to repeat themselves. It
is considered impolite. If they dont understand you, they will
continue looking attentive, all the while letting your thoughts
and ideas pass them by. It is critical that you speak slowly.
The same is true with interpreters. If you speak too quickly,
interpreters will ignore translating those segments that they dont understand. Chinese
interpreters seldom ask you to repeat yourself.
7. Let people save face.
What may seem to many of us to be showing an interest by asking
questions, seems to the Chinese as if we were conducting the Spanish
Inquisition. It is easy to understand why we want to have all
the answers. After all, thats why weve traveled all the way
to China! However, its best to practice restraint. Remember,
You cant make a plant grow by pulling on it, as the Chinese
The Chinese are not accustomed to revealing much about themselves
or their company in public. Chinese employees are discouraged from exhibiting
individuality. Few people volunteer to divulge much information,
particularly if they are not sure whether their bosses will allow
them to share the information with Westerners.
If people are vague or unwilling to give you a straight answer,
dont try to force them. Trying to force them to divulge the information
will only earn you animosity.
8. Arrange one-on-one meetings.
There is one sure way to get good information from the Chinesewhen
they are alone with you. With no one around, the Chinese are direct,
straightforward and free to speak their minds.
One skill Ive disciplined myself to learn over the last 20 years
in doing business in China is to stay a little longer after each
sales or corporate presentation. I have learned not to expect
much meaningful information in a crowd. Invariably, after my presentation,
when most people have gone, a handful of people will walk up to
me. They will ask if I can meet with them in their facilities
or privately. Those are the moments I seek to get critical business
9. Avoid being too casual.
Americans are casual people. We believe that our society is not
that class-conscious. We want to believe that we are not obsessed
with social status. This may be the case in America, but it is
definitely not so in China.
In America, we are used to calling people whom we dont know very
well by their first names. CEOs and workers may address each other
by their first names. Even telemarketers call us by our first
Avoid calling your Chinese contacts by their first names. Always
be formal in addressing people. It is the only safe and proper
thing to do. Only childhood friends and spouses will refer to
each other by their first names in China. So, when you start calling
someone you dont know very well by his or her first name, he
or she finds it uncomfortable, embarrassing, and gauche.
10. Let them smoke.
You may dislike smoking very much. But many Chinese smoke and
consider smoking, especially among men, the right thing to do
in a business environment. If your contact offers you a cigarette,
simply decline and thank them. But dont lecture on how smoking
is bad for them. If you allow them to smoke, theyll listen to
Ive learned not to meet people in my hotel room, so that I can
still go to sleep without feeling that Im turning into smoked
meat. Try to meet people in a public, well-ventilated place so
that they can smoke to their hearts content. They can smoke and
you can breathe.
11. Dont take a Chinese person saying yes literally to mean
Chinese people have a habit of saying yes to show that they
are paying attention to you or that they are following what you
say. In such a context, the word yes does not mean that they
agree with what you are saying.
To find out whether or not they agree with you, wait until they
speak in complete sentences or put things in writing.
12. Watch your language.
Many Chinese who speak and read English learn the language in
school, not in real life. Their English teachers may not have
living and working experiences in the West. As a result, they
may not understand colloquialisms or figures of speech that we
take for granted.
Ive seen all sorts of translation problems arise from nuances
in speech, ranging from silly mistakes to off-color misinterpretations.
An example of the confusion caused by a common expression is found
in an article on negotiation skills that mentioned a football
field in the middle of a sentence, when the English original
talked about a level playing field. To avoid these pitfalls,
find someone who has living and working experiences in the United
States to go over your translations or interpret for you.
13. Avoid the color white in general--and a green-colored hat
White is the color of mourning in the Chinese tradition. When
packaging products for Chinese distribution, avoid too much white
background. Crimson or persimmon red is the preferred color. It
suggests power, prosperity, and authority.
Avoid giving green-colored hats to Chinese men. Wearing a green
hat in Chinese means that someones wife is unfaithful. It is
shameful for a man to wear a green hat in public. Some Texas business
people gave the late Deng Xiaoping a green hat as he was visiting
a manufacturing company there. People wondered why Mr. Deng was
reluctant to wear the hat.
14. Never give a Chinese person a clock.
The phrase to give a clock means to attend someones funeral
in Chinese. Avoid giving people clocks as gifts.
15. Chinese sensitivity to numbers.
Many Chinese people are superstitious about numbers. The pronunciation
of the number 4 in Chinese rhymes with death or failure. Many
Chinese try very hard not to have their addresses or telephone
numbers contain the numeral 4. And the number 14 is worse. The
Chinese word for 14 rhymes with sure to fail, sure to die.
The numbers 3 and 8 are good numbers. The number 3 in Chinese
rhymes with growth, which is therefore very welcome to business
people. The number 8 rhymes with the Chinese word for prosperity.
The number 168 sounds in Chinese like forever prosperous, which
is a definite crowd pleaser. It is not an accident that the last
four digits of the telephone number of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel
in Shanghai is 8888.
Building Trust in the Chinese Society
Now for a personal story. I grew up in Hong Kong in the 1950s.
My parents had a dry-goods store. One day, I overheard my mother
talking with a salesman. They were reminiscing about how long
it had taken for the salesman to persuade my mother to accept
his merchandise. It took the salesman seven visits to succeed,
but their business relationship lasted for decades until my parents
I witnessed the same mindset and behavior in selling books and
information products to Chinese librarians. One has to meet people
face-to-face. We need to make presentations of our products, followed
by a dinner here and a banquet there. The initial visits may not
result in orders, but orders will come sooner or later and the
relationship tends to be long lasting.
It is true that understanding the finer points of doing business
outside of ones own culture can only broaden ones market possibilities.
The personal enrichment one experiences during global business
exchanges, however, can oftentimes equal that of the career success
we enjoy by better understanding the other individual.
Undoubtedly, cultural awareness can be rewarding in many ways.
Copyright © ASTM, 2001