Authors: Francesca Hu, Lucy Dong
Doing any sort of business in China requires flexibility, cultural intelligence, and quite a bit of humility. Any discussion of business in China starts with a foundational topic: the concept of “face”.
There’s a saying in the Chinese language that goes “人要脸树要皮”, which translates to mean “Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark”. In business, your Chinese counterpart needs “face”. The concept of ‘face’, “面子”, refers to the amount of “dignity” or “prestige” that’s associated with an individual. So, it is key to keep your business partners from losing respect for oneself or to avoid embarrassment.
For many western businesspeople, this may seem like a silly game, but it is not something that the Chinese take lightly. The important takeaway is to treat your hosts and potential business partners with the utmost respect and if you do have suggestions or challenges, bring them up carefully in private only.
When you first greet a Chinese person in a business context, a traditional handshake and “Nihao” (“Hello”) is sufficient for both men and women. Nodding and smiling are also very common greetings. It is advised to address your business partners with a professional title (or Mr / Madam / Miss if they don’t have one) and their name.
Gift-giving in business relationships used to be a significant part of doing business in the country, but over the past decade, China has cracked down on rampant corruption stemming from it. Given the minor importance of gifts today, they should not be too expensive and always be wrapped. It is best to keep gifts small and personal, if possible. For example, bringing a bottle of wine from a vineyard near your hometown or giving a nice skincare product to a female counterpart, can be a welcome gesture. The gift must be given and/or received with both hands and are rarely opened in front of the gift giver.
If you’re curious about the topic, check out our article “The Chinese and Italian Business models“