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The Dos and Don’ts of Chinese Business Etiquette

Analysis

Csaba Wolf is vice president of ChinaCham, the Hungarian-Chinese Chamber of Economy. He studied at the International Politics faculty of Beijing University from 1986-92 on a foreign ministry scholarship and served as a commercial counselor at the Hungarian embassy in Beijing between stints at private companies.

Csaba Wolf once watched aghast as a Hungarian businessman committed an extraordinary faux pas according to Chinese cultural norms, for which he paid the price, despite careful coaching before the fateful meeting.

One day around 1990, Wolf received a call from the Hungarian embassy in Beijing: a business delegation was arriving from Budapest. Could he spare a day to help one company with interpreting at meetings?

For Wolf, studying international politics at Beijing University and already fluent in Chinese, the request was not unusual. Indeed, he relished such opportunities, as the remuneration was a significant addition to his scholarship stipend.

But well aware of the etiquette mistakes commonly made by newcomers to China, he arranged to meet the Hungarian before the appointment to brief him on some basic rules of engagement.

“I spent an hour with the Hungarian negotiator. Since they badly wanted to buy a certain product from the Chinese, they were in the weaker position. So, I told them to be very careful with manners, and how, at the beginning, they needed to hand over and receive business cards with two hands, as an important symbol of respect,” Wolf, who today is vice-president of ChinaCham, the Hungarian-Chinese Chamber of Economy, recalls in an interview with the Budapest Business Journal.

Believing that the Hungarian visitor had got the essential message, Wolf accompanied him into the meeting.

“This Hungarian guy didn’t even wait for the Chinese to greet him, shake hands and exchange cards; he went to the chair, sat down, took out his name card, and slipped it over the table towards his Chinese counterpart,” he remembers all too vividly. Worse still, the card slid across the table, slipped off the edge and fell on the floor.

A Wasted Trip

“The Chinese counterpart just looked at this, stood up, went out of the room, and that was it, finished! The Chinese guy actually said nothing. That was like a wasted airplane ticket, a wasted trip. And this after an hour of telling him what to pay attention to,” he says.

“This was an extraordinary reaction: I wouldn’t say every [Chinese person] would react like that, especially in Europe today, where they are probably more loose because they meet a lot more people without any [knowledge of] Chinese business culture. But what I am saying is, if you don’t follow these very simple courtesy rules, then you can lose a lot,” Wolf argues. Eventually, the Hungarian commercial office found another supplier for the businessman, but the quality was not as good.

As someone who later taught intercultural behavior to Westerners planning to work with Chinese partners, Wolf says the pitfalls are many and varied. Training sessions “could last hours, even longer. There is so much material on this subject that if a company wants a really deep training, it could last a couple of days.”

For example, he advises never to give a Chinese person a clock. The Chinese word for it is “biao,” and to give it to someone is “song.” Saying “song-biao” has the same sound, though it is written differently, as the Chinese for “to pay your last respects.”

(Gifting a watch, however, is acceptable, even if the spoken words are similar. “The Chinese love watches, so that overrules everything,” Wolf says.)

Similarly, a knife, or any sharp implement, cannot be a present: it would be viewed as a sign of cutting the relationship. And just in case your company color is green, beware of the gift of a baseball cap or any green headwear, which is considered not polite.

“You see, there is a Chinese legend about a pretty lady who had a young husband, but the lady also had a lover. To be sure that the lover knew when the husband was not at home, the wife knitted a bright green hat. So, when he left in the morning for work, the lover could see the hat in the crowd and knew it was safe to visit the wife,” Wolf explains.

Ponderous Progress

The newcomer to business negotiations in China should also beware of reacting badly to what, to the western mind, can be frustratingly ponderous progress.

“You cannot really surprise Chinese people in negotiations. Yes, of course, there are extreme situations, but normally Chinese business people go well prepared for meetings, better than you imagine,” Wolf cautions.

But what frequently happens, especially in the first meetings, is the Chinese negotiating partner is not the final decision maker.

“You are probably authorized to make decisions, [but] your counterpart is not, and that puts you into an uncomfortable situation. You want to push the negotiations further, but your counterpart merely takes notes and says we’ll discuss this with my boss. This makes things complicated, and you seem to be repeating things and going nowhere,” he says. “That’s just how it goes with the Chinese; you get used to it.”

The key to at least avoiding failure is not to lose patience, however exasperating the state of negotiations may appear, Wolf warns.

“Don’t get angry. Don’t start speaking faster or raising your voice. It never brings success. If you lose your temper with the Chinese, it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Beware the Numeral Four

When Csaba Wolf worked as a diplomat at the Hungarian embassy in Beijing, he lived on the 25th floor of an apartment block. At least, it was designated as such, but from a strictly architectural point of view, it was the 21st floor.

“In Chinese skyscrapers, there is normally no fourth floor, no 14th, and no 24th floor either. They simply leave them out,” he says, the reason being, once again, in the Chinese pronunciation of the word for four, “si,” which is the same sound as the word for “death.”

“The writing is different, even the tone is different, but if you give anything or in any way represents four, that means you wish death to the person. You don’t do that, of course. And you don’t give anything in sets of four, especially if it says four on the box, which it usually would,” Wolf warns.

The keen observer might ask, if Wolf lived on the 25th floor, even accounting for numbers containing the accursed four, isn’t another level still missing in the skyscraper’s floor arithmetic?

“Ah, yes,” Wolf says, “because a lot of Westerners lived there, so, like the Americans sometimes do, they left the 13th out too, [out of respect] for us.”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of March 10, 2023.

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