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Bernice Lee Explains Chinese Business Etiquette [Part 2], Ep #93

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The wonderful Bernice Lee returns to the podcast to share more about Chinese business etiquette. Bernice is an etiquette coach who was raised in Canada, worked in the U.S., and is now based in Hong Kong. She teaches Westerners and the local business communities all about the ins and outs of doing business in Hong Kong and China.

She’s an expert on the correct way to greet people, what to avoid, the big no-no’s, and even dinner etiquette. In this episode of Negotiations Ninja, we’re delving even deeper into etiquette concepts like saving face, proximity, physical space, and much more! This is an amazing free lesson that will greatly benefit business and sales professionals working in unfamiliar environments.

Outline of This Episode

  • [2:39] Bernice Lee’s professional background in etiquette
  • [3:58] Key differences in body language westerners need to be aware of
  • [5:49] How do you handle the lack of personal space?
  • [6:41] Other body language to be aware of
  • [9:51] Why Chinese will lavish attention on your babies
  • [10:57] Bernice’s top advice to Westerners
  • [16:49] The concept of saving face and what it means
  • [22:02] How does communication within a Chinese company differ?
  • [22:50] The Chinese business etiquette of gift-giving

Body language and personal space in Chinese business etiquette

What is the role of body language in Chinese business etiquette? Westerners are most comfortable with two and a half feet between themselves and the person they’re speaking with. Chinese locals are more accustomed to very close quarters so it’s not at all unusual for them to be inside your personal “bubble”. Bernice suggests that if you find yourself uncomfortable, you can shift away a little bit. However, you should do your best to accommodate the culture that you’re in and to cope with their entrance into your personal space.

In the US, if you have a friendship or connection with a coworker, you may get a light hug from the person when you greet each other. If you know each other well, you may even get a smack on the cheek. In China, kissing and hugging is reserved for someone you have an intimate relationship with. You do not do it with a colleague or someone you’re just meeting.

In a business situation, a simple handshake will suffice. Westerners are accustomed to a firm handshake but a Chinese handshake is akin to a long grasp. You may even experience the two-handed handshake. For many Westerners, it feels intimate but on mainland China, it’s common and shows hospitality. Are public displays of affection appropriate? And why is it culturally acceptable for Chinese to touch and interact with your child? Keep listening to find out!

Bernice’s top advice for Westerners

Bernice shares a few important tips when negotiating with a Chinese businessman. Firstly, Chinese business etiquette dictates that you stand up when you meet someone to show respect. Secondly, tone down your smile. You can smile, but Chinese people don’t smile much to strangers. To Americans, it conveys friendliness, approachability, and amiability. A Chinese negotiator might think something is wrong with you, wrong with their face, or worse—that you’re making fun of them. Those thoughts may go through their head if you smile broadly at them. So if you are a smiley person you’ll have to tone it down a bit.

Thirdly, in the US, transparency and individuality are valued and people are encouraged to openly share their views while being honest and diplomatic. Chinese are going to be more subtle in how they negotiate. If they disagree with you, they may not necessarily say it to your face. They may say “yes” they understand but it doesn’t mean they agree. Be mindful of their body language, more specifically whether or not they lower their gaze. Lastly, listen before offering your opinion.

The concept of saving face: what does it mean?

Saving face is a complex topic. It doesn’t just have to do with Chinese business etiquette, but is an inherent part of the group orientation of the Chinese culture. America and Canada are more individualistic societies. You are valued based on your individual thoughts and experiences. Chinese cultures—and many East Asian cultures—are group-oriented. The priority is less on the individual and more on group harmony and collectivism and getting along with others. That’s why modesty and humility are greatly prized. Bragging and talking about yourself in a job interview is highly discouraged. Everything is about preserving group harmony.

When it comes to face, you must not insult or belittle other people because it is disrespectful. You’d be stirring the pot. To further explain the concept of face, if an individual loses their temper, that person will have lost face. They made a fool out of themselves because they didn’t maintain their composure. More importantly, because Chinese culture is based on collectivism, there is a shared face. Because this individual was negotiating with a team, it means the entire time could have lost face as a result of that behavior. The choices an individual makes reflects on the whole team.

Calling someone out in public—whether for lying or making a mistake—should be avoided at all costs. You should not reveal that they don’t know something or point out a lack of knowledge and ability. Bernice shares an example where someone has poor English skills. Even an offhand jokingly-made comment about their use of the English language causes that person to lose face—not to mention extreme embarrassment. Bernice shares some other examples where someone might lose face that is important to know, so keep listening!

Chinese business etiquette: gift-giving

Bernice agrees that gift-giving is always a nice gesture to build a relationship, especially during special holidays such as Chinese New Year. It’s a great way to keep business relationships functioning smoothly and shows goodwill. The Chinese culture embraces reciprocal gift-giving. So if you give a gift, they are expected to return something to you of similar value. Bernice notes you want to be mindful of that and choose something reasonable within your company’s budget (AND your counterpart’s budget). If you were invited to a dinner with a Chinese businessman, the most common gift given is alcohol. It’s a nice gift to convey, “Thank you for inviting me.” To hear more of Bernice’s advice on Chinese business etiquette—listen to the whole episode!

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