First project with Chinese clients - cultural etiquette advice?
January 30, 2016 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Next week I'll spend several days together with clients from Shanghai coming to Europe for a project we are producing for them. As it's the first time we are working for a Chinese client (specifically: an advertising agency and their client), it would be great to know in advance any specific business etiquette (beyond usual international practice), and any relevant cultural pointers to keep in mind during our work together during the day, and dinners (that we will be offering) during the evenings.

Are there specific things they might appreciate / prefer to avoid / find gauche / find delightful / that should never be said, implied or done? Not looking to stereotype, but would like to be as aligned and in-tune as possible.
posted by progosk to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Generally speaking, employees of most large companies/firms in Shanghai would be relatively familiar with Western culturally practices and relatively savvy; I don't think they'd be super surprised or offended by much that you would do. ( It also depends a lot on their ages and if they were educated abroad or not- if they are under 30 or even 40 and have been educated in the West, there shouldn't be much issue. If over 50 or so, and non-English speaking, perhaps more of one.)


-in China, business is often discussed during meals, so be prepared that they may want to do some business deals over lunch/dinner

-Probably best to avoid "putting people on the spot" or being overly direct, esp. with higher-ups in the company. If you have suggestions or comments, think of a way to say them in an indirect. non-critical way- people will understand subtlety but criticism that is too direct and pointed, esp. at higher-ups, can result in "loss of face".

-In my experience, Chinese companies are generally more hierarchical and at meetings, etc, it's practice to let higher-ranked people speak first, or ask them questions first. I have been at business meals in China where lower ranked people sat in silence the whole time unless asked a question by higher-ups, who did most of the talking.

Also, though, SHanghai is one of the most cosmopolitan and savvy places in China- they may have incorporated many western practices as well and likely have staff that have been educated abroad.
posted by bearette at 8:07 AM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Basic strategy
– The relationships are extremely important. Take the time to get to know them at the beginning of the meeting. Ask questions. Take an authentic interest. In China, relationships often drive business, and whilst they understand Western practices, the native Chinese expectation is to understand the people that they are doing business with. This doesn't look necessarily like small talk, but rather true engagement. This is particularly an affront committed by Americans, who can often be all about the deal. Europe's better at it, but it's worth taking the time to get to know your counterparts and build the relationship.

– There is a very fine line for the Chinese between passion for business and personal emotional engagement. They quite enjoy the former, and not the latter. Chinese business people enjoy vision and they enjoy the greater relevance of the work in society, however not necessarily personal emotion. If you consider that line for a moment, it will start to make more sense how they see the world.

– Decision-making is not always obvious, and you should not necessarily press for a decision. Going back to the relationship point, their hierarchies are not always transparent and they often will not want to discuss who the functional decision-maker is. It will go much more smoothly if you state that a decision needs to be made, and when that decision needs to be made, and allow your counterparts to return with the decision. It's very common in Europe to seek out "the budget holder" and cater to them, treating the people below as conduits toward that person. Whilst that same structure may be present, it may not be obvious. I have seen many Europeans flounder by presenting to and catering to the wrong person in the room, which often does not go well in terms of decisions. Be very clear that a decision needs to be made, and when it needs to be made by, and allow your counterparts to actually reach the decision.

– The worst shortcut above is going outside the formal structure, which goes back to point #1. If things seem slow and delayed, it seem logical to go outside the structure and to who you perceive the decision-maker to be. At that point, it's a coin toss, because some leaders appreciate that and others don't. As you will probably not know that relationship, it can be a heady chance to take. That being said, going back to the point above about separating out emotion, it's best to be aggressive without being emotional.

– Avoid political discussions, unless that is the topic of your business.

– Don't take offence at curiosity. The Chinese are very curious and love to know how things work. That's different from the reasons why you chose them. They'll be less interested in why, and more interested in the mechanics.

Advanced strategy

– Have copies of the materials translated into Mandarin ahead of time. Mandarin translates to English in a number of different ways. Choose a translation agency with deep experience. While they may understand English well, there may well be nuances that don't come across. Also, it's a tremendous sign of respect.

– Mandarin name (business cards) on back of standard business cards
posted by nickrussell at 8:29 AM on January 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: – Mandarin name (business cards) on back of standard business cards

You mean my name, mandarinized?

Incidentally, one thing I have noticed is their use of what I presume to be a westernized first name - I imagine it's not something they'd appreciate remarking on, or is it acually a quirky concession, in their eyes?

Also: there's their New Year coming up just after we wrap our project: anything we might do to tie in to that?
posted by progosk at 9:10 AM on January 30, 2016

Incidentally, one thing I have noticed is their use of what I presume to be a westernized first name - I imagine it's not something they'd appreciate remarking on, or is it acually a quirky concession, in their eyes?

Super-fashionable among upper-middle class Chinese, even those who don't do business directly with the West. Probably best not to dwell on, just to avoid any risk of sounding condescending about it.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

It was my experience when I went to Shanghai on business that we exchanged small gifts.
posted by AugustWest at 10:59 AM on January 30, 2016

Expect a lot of small talk before getting to business. Echoing the advice above about not putting anyone on the spot. Evading the question means no. "We'll consider it" means no. Teeth-sucking means no.

If they introduce themselves with English given names, refer to them by those names, and don't comment on their choice of name, no matter how silly they may sound (Panther, Eagle, Magic, etc). If they introduce themselves by surnames, use their surnames. Try to not mangle the pronunciation of their names too badly -- the 'zh', 'x', and 'j' sounds are commonly mispronounced by Westerners. There's a soundboard here for reference.

Heavy drinking business culture is more prevalent in northern China than in Shanghai, but may still come into play. You won't be expected to know all the intricacies of toasting and clinking glasses, but you can google "chinese business drinking culture" for tips. The only important rule I can think of is this: If drinks are served with dinner, it's ok to drink and ok to not drink, but not ok to stop drinking once you've started.

Do have a business card, present it with two hands, accept theirs with two hands, and set all of their cards on the table in front of you. If all of your communication so far has been in English, I wouldn't worry about having a Chinese name or translating your materials into Chinese, unless a member of your company/team is fluent and can answer questions about any discrepancies between the English and Chinese versions.
posted by bradf at 11:02 AM on January 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mandarin name card.
posted by nickrussell at 12:15 PM on January 30, 2016

I'll make a descriptive statement you should think about, and then a normative statement that you should feel free to ignore.

I often find Westerners, especially business types, to talk in a way that comes off as over-confident. E.g., someone was showing me a video and pointed out a mistake with absolutely no acknowledgement that this guy had been working an order of magnitude longer than the speaker and it was possible that choice had been forced by a subtlety the speaker had overlooked. Then I asked for something and was immediately promised it would be possible, "no problem!" and I was mildly concerned that the speaker hadn't fully considered his answer. In the end, I think my fears were unjustified, but somehow this person's mannerisms just didn't reassure me.

Now here's the advice that might be completely wrong. I don't know. If you're criticizing someone, leave them an out. It would have been much more credible to me if this person had said, "I don't know why he did that; usually you'd do X and I don't see any evidence that Y or Z was around to prevent X." When making promises, act like you've thought carefully about it and have good reason to believe you can deliver. When I asked for the thing, "Sure, that's actually easier than it sounds, and we do it all the time."

I'm not saying you can't brag or sell yourself, but it just comes out differently in ways I can't quite articulate.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:23 PM on January 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

The touchstone to how you should act is in your first sentence
>>Next week I'll spend several days together with clients from Shanghai

That means they're the boss and you're the service provider. They'll expect a bit of grovelling, some solicitous bowing and scraping, from you. And you might find them arrogant and brusque, questioning your capabilities and fees. All that is normal Chinese business behavior, part of the game, so don't be offended and don't argue.

>> (specifically: an advertising agency and their client)
There's your second guidepost. If I'm reading you right, your actual client is the advertising agency. They will be just as interested as you are in keeping the ultimate client happy. More so in fact. So ask your contacts at that advertising agency for suggestions and tips. Sightseeing? Need to meet them at the airport? Take them to a show? The ad agency will have advice on all that.
posted by mono blanco at 8:38 PM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Re: Lunar New Year, it's generally polite to give people fruit (wrapped up in big red cellophane or something) or a nice bottle of baijiu (in this case, some western alcohol).

Also seconding bearette, I worked in Shanghai and people are very educated in Western business norms. But people will appreciate the gestures.
posted by mmmleaf at 8:41 PM on January 31, 2016

Response by poster: So, just for closure:

- good to know about card etiquette - though oddly enough the final client (it's the Chinese branch of a German company) seems to have a policy whereby middle managers do not get card to give - this felt very strange (and somewhat embarassing) even for the Chinese agency.

- Hong Kong vs Mainland differentiation (a faultline that's paralleled by the Cantonese/Mandarin divide) seems to be a strong issue in their business world, with the HKers viewing their Mainland counterparts as needy of their more worldly cultural and professional experience.

- compared to Europe, business communication takes a different shape/form due to WeChat (Whatsapp in HK) imposing itself as a parallel channel to email - with all the opportunities for relation-building that this newer form offers/allows.

Thanks all for the tips.
posted by progosk at 1:09 AM on March 1, 2016

« Older Can I use GIMP with a Surface Pro 3 and a Surface...   |   Anxiety about engagement and weddings Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.