Cross-Cultural Leadership: Why Learning Chinese Business Etiquette is Not Enough

Chinese New Year cake with symbol of The Year of The Horse

Do you want to be successful in doing business with the Chinese? Do you want to build lasting relationships? Then understand why learning Chinese business etiquette will be important, but not enough.

Your company is looking for a Chinese business partner, and you and your team are about to enter an important meeting.  You have only met your would-be partner once, and are eager to make the meeting a success.  You prepared yourself by taking a crash course in Mandarin (though you know your counterpart speaks perfect English).  You have also learned some vital do’s and don’ts, for instance:

  • Chinese surnames come first, not last;
  • Pay close attention to hierarchy;
  • Accept business cards with both hands and read them carefully;
  • If you bring gifts wrap them in bright red, NOT in white (white signals death and mourning);
  • And never, ever blow your nose in public.

Ready, you think? Only if you realize that learning Chinese business etiquette, though important, is not enough to build successful longer-term relationships with Chinese business partners, suppliers, employees or customers.

Western executives and managers need to understand that, when it comes to creating effective work relationships with people from China (and generally from Asian countries with cultures very different from our own), more is needed than business acumen and awareness of cultural differences.

I have talked to many China veterans, and what they are telling me is this.  Working successfully with the Chinese has everything to do with the WILL to go beyond customs and habits, the cultural do’s and don’ts, and focus on the people behind those habits.  It is about the will to understand the deeper level of their culture.  It is about listening to learn, about asking the right questions and formulating appropriate responses (indirectly is sometimes better than directly).  It is about understanding what concepts like ‘losing face’ really mean (how to avoid making people lose face). It is about building mutual trust, despite cultural differences (how to build mutual trust).

Easy?  No. Rewarding?  You bet.

Does all this mean that, to make your dealings with the Chinese a success, you should forget about your own cultural identity and values?  It doesn’t!

Successful cross-cultural leaders build effective relationships across cultures precisely because they don’t try to be somebody else. Because they are transparent about themselves and their cultural background. Being transparent about your own cultural traditions and values, being transparent about the differences you experience between your own culture and identity, and the other person’s culture and identity, will most likely increase respect and trust between you.  It will help you to build stronger and more effective relationships.

Author and former corporate executive Scott Seligman captures this delicate balancing act like this:  ‘On the one hand, it is about understanding and accommodating people with unfamiliar patterns of interaction that may seem, at times, to be gracious, strange, funny, obsequious, indirect, refreshing, counterproductive, or downright maddening.  On the other hand, it is also about being yourself: being true to your own cultural traditions and values, and behaving in accordance with the best of these.  Such balance is difficult, but your success with the Chinese requires that you strive for it, since you won’t achieve much by tilting too far to either side.’ (source: Scott Seligman, Chinese Business Etiquette, p. 258)


Cross-Cultural Leadership

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2 Comments on “Cross-Cultural Leadership: Why Learning Chinese Business Etiquette is Not Enough

  1. Pingback: Simple Tips for Cross-Cultural Communication via the Internet - Jesse Lyn Stoner

  2. Pingback: People Skills Lessons Learned: Community Festival of Experience! #peopleskills - Kate Nasser

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