Top Ten Things to Know About Chinese Communications and Culture
- The traditional Chinese "handshake" consists of interlocking the fingers of the hands and waving them up and down several times. This is rarely used today (except during festivals, weddings and birthdays of the elderly), and the Western-style handshake is used by most everyone. When greeting, a slight bow often accompanies the handshake, but do not bow from the waist in the style of the Japanese. While a firm grip is expected in the West, the Chinese employ a gentler handshake. Except for shaking hands, do not touch anyone unless you know them very well. Never embrace or slap a Chinese associate on the back.
- Business cards are routinely exchanged at the first meeting. Be sure that one side of your card has been translated into Chinese. Include your company's name, your job title and any special qualifications you have. When receiving a card from a Chinese businessman, take it with both hands and compliment something about it; be sure to keep it on the table in front of you for the entire meeting.
- Chinese names are "reversed" from Western names. The surname is said first and then the given name. For example, Bruce Lee's name in Cantonese is Lee Siu Lung. Lee is his surname and spoken first, and the given name (Little Dragon) is spoken second. Professional, social, and family titles always follow the name as well. Dr. Wong would be Huang Yi Sheng (Huang Doctor). Likewise, Xiansheng (Mr.) and Taitai (Mrs.) are said after the surname. Never call someone by only his last name, and unless specifically asked, do not call someone by his first name; always address your Chinese associates by their surname followed by their title. Also, never address anyone as "Comrade."
- The Chinese will often avoid eye contact during conversations, especially when talking to the opposite sex or to strangers. Traditionally, it was considered impolite and aggressive to look directly into another's eyes while talking, and as a sign of respect, the Chinese sometimes lower their eyes slightly when they meet others. The Chinese typically have a "blank" facial expression during introductions. This is not a sign of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or unfriendliness, but reflects the belief that there is virtue in concealing emotions. Chinese communication is ambiguous, indirect and highly contextual. In conversation, the real meaning, especially if it's negative, is often implied rather than stated. What is not said is often more important that what is said.
- When meeting someone for the first time for a business meeting, you should engage in general conversation before turning to business. Casual conversation topics in China differ from that of English speakers. It is not impolite to ask about a person's job, annual salary, marital/dating status or age. Although your answers need not be detailed, trying to avoid answering will only invite suspicion and misunderstanding. The specifics of your answers are not as important as your willingness to respond. In contrast, questions about family tend to be deflected or avoided.
- Lavish gift-giving was once an important part of Chinese culture. Today, official policy forbids gift-giving as it can be considered bribery. Though the policy is softening, there may be times when a gift will absolutely not be accepted. Should you find yourself in this situation, graciously say you understand and withdraw the gift. Smaller, less expensive items will not be seen as a bribe, but in any case, you will have to approach gift-giving with discretion. The Chinese do not usually accept a gift, invitation or favor when it is first presented, but will politely refuse two or three times to reflect modesty and humility. Accepting something in haste makes a person look aggressive and greedy, as does opening it in front of the giver. See our Top Ten Guidelines to Gift-Giving in China for more information.
- Six, eight and nine are considered lucky numbers, since their homophones have auspicious meanings. Six, liu in Chinese, implies that everything about you will go smoothly. Eight was originally deemed lucky by the Cantonese, since in Cantonese, the word for eight is fa, which means to make a great fortune in the near future. Later, the auspiciousness of eight was taken up by all Chinese. Nine, jiu, implies everlasting, especially in friendship and marriage. Four and seven are unlucky numbers; the former implies death and the latter means gone.
- Color symbolism is very important in China. Red is lucky and used in celebrations, but never use red ink to write cards or letters, as it symbolizes the end of a relationship. Yellow is associated with prosperity, and gold is especially felicitous. In contrast with Western cultures, white signifies death.
- Instead of serving dishes individually as in the West - where everyone has his own portion of food on a single plate - the Chinese typically share food from a number of dishes placed in the center of the table. Each person sitting around the table takes food from the common plates. Sometimes, in order to show their friendship and sincerity, Chinese hosts will pick from dishes with their own chopsticks or spoons for you, and place food on your plate. Never place your chopsticks upright in a rice bowl; it replicates the bowl of sand or rice with two upright incense sticks that is traditionally placed at the shrine of deceased loved one.
- Many common Western gestures are considered rude in China.
- Pointing with the index finger - use a face-up, open hand instead
- Beckoning someone with the index finger - use the hand with fingers motioning downward as in waving instead
- Finger snapping
- Showing the soles of shoes
- Whistling to get someone's attention