Business in China: An NAI Guide to Chinese Business Culture Part II

In the part II of this NAI guide to Chinese business culture, we'll take a closer look at some of the practical tips that will help you get well integrated in business environments.

What formalities and social cues to pay attention to

From the Chinese perspective

Dress professionally as you would here. In China, females tend to dress up for work (like going to church) more so than the males. Female workers love to wear heels even when they have to walk on mud or gravel roads (if you are a westerner, they probably don’t expect the same). For myself, if I were in a business meeting, I dressed up. If I were working in the field, I dressed down a little because of the long travel and work environment. But be prepared that the local leaders who receive you will be all dressed up, and they would welcome you as a leader and show you off to their people. It all depends on how you would like to present yourself as a western representative. (Note: the designation of volunteer is not likely to garner very much respect. Your status is directly proportional to your income and your social influence).

You may address the female as "Madam [Last name]"(e.g., Mme. Lucia) regardless of their position. For the male, you may address the person as "Mr. (Last name)" (e.g., Mr. Hu), or "[Last name] [Position title]" (e.g,. Hu Deputy Manager). The Chinese will address you as "Madam [First name], or "Mr. [Last name], or "Dr. [First name]" (e.g, Dr. Nancy).

Chinese people have high respect for foreigners and especially the experts. They do not feel comfortable to call you by your first name. When they are willing to do that, you know you have broken the barrier, and they consider you as one of them.

Productivity is important and that’s how they judge if you are a suitable expert for them. The Chinese are often extremely efficient and produce high quality work. They value hard work, and you will find a lot of this in the leaders, and that’s why they are leaders. You may have to really work on how to motivate the staff. The staff is used to having their leaders to tell them what to do, when to do what, etc. They have a very different learning style and work approach. When the leaders are not around, you will have a lot of staff management problems from tardiness, absenteeism, etc. So try to incorporate all these in your project management work.

When the Chinese leaders or staff consistently do not give you the work that you have asked for by the deadline, you can safely assume that they are not willing to do that task. So go back to find out what the barriers are, and encourage the needed level of communication to get the work done.

Depending on where you work, some (hot) places in China have a 1.5-2.5 hour lunch break. Workers will eat quickly and nap then go back to work. They may find it very strange if you do not take a nap, but will not be offended if you don’t.

From the Western perspective

Many changes have taken in China with regards to workplace protocol. In general, people in China like to dress formally, the men in suit and tie, and the women in dress suits as well. With the number of foreign owned enterprises and personnel who may have experience working abroad, it wouldn’t be unusual to walk into an office that looks like an office in Canada or in the US, with co-workers dressed for business during the week with a "casual Friday" for jeans and open collars.

Forms of address vary quite a bit in China. In Chinese the surname comes first followed by the given name or names, so an English name like "John Williams Smith" would be "Smith John Williams." In Chinese, the form of address for a man is typically "Mr." (xiansheng) as in "Mr. Wang" (Wang Xiansheng). More often than not, for women, terms of "Mrs. Peng" (Peng Taitai) for a married woman, and "Miss Tang" (Tang xiaojie) for an unmarried woman, are common. However, a man or a woman may be addressed as "Director Long" (Long Jingli) or "Manager Ting" (Ting laoban). At a first meeting in English, it would probably be safer to go with "Mr. Song" for a man and "Miss Ling" for a woman. Over all, it might be better to go with the flow and find out just how your colleagues and employees wish to be addressed.

Approaches to time cannot be considered as standard in every workplace and it will be up to you to determine what particular work practices are in your office. Work habits vary in China. Some organizations and institutions are more strict or fluid with regard to productivity depending on the management style of the particular office.

From the Chinese perspective

The reason that you are an oversea representative is because the Chinese partners want to learn something from you (your country) that they cannot get from their own people/resources. So your knowledge, education, experience, leaderships, hard work, creativity, personable etc. are all important. If you do not have these to offer, the Chinese can dismiss you very quickly. They expect a lot from the foreign experts.

I would encourage that the oversea representatives work closely with a Chinese counterpart. This will avoid the Chinese leader saying that the foreigner did not understand their system, and therefore could not integrate/implement the project etc.

Build a strong rapport with your staff, and maintain on-going communication with them and assess what feedback the recipients (consumers) will give you re: your work performance. Check the validity and reliability of the feedback you get (verbal and written). Written evaluations are frequently misleading if not untrue. The Chinese partners are accustomed to writing very flowery reports, and they also believe that they should only say positive things to the "strangers".

In my experience, I noted that the new-thinking leaders in China are adopting more and more the western management styles.

From the Western perspective

Education, experience, and hard work are important qualities for local superior/managers. The opening-up and reforms that have occurred in China over the past two decades also mean that being open to new ideas from abroad is also highly valued (although sometimes such a quality is also sometimes dependent on the age of the person, i.e., younger or foreign educated locals may be expected to be more innovative).

Leadership is very important in China. The "personable" qualities of a superior/manager, while they may be valued, are less important than leadership abilities themselves.

Expats will be highly regarded for the same reasons as local managers and superiors. At the same time, because an Expat is a foreigner, from the outset his or her ideas will be considered as "new," and even a little bit intimidating. It is worthwhile taking the time to get to know the workings of an office before jumping in.

A certain amount of time and patience is needed to appreciate different communication and working styles. Foreigners are often shown a certain amount of deference in social situations. However, this should not be mistaken for an indication of the actual work relationship, because a certain amount of deference and respect is also expected in return.

Social relations tend to be rather hierarchical in China. If the Expat is a superior/manager, it may be difficult to gauge how staff view you. You may have to ask for it, so to speak. If a colleague is closer to you in the pecking order, you may be surprised at how direct people can be in China.

From the Chinese perspective

Often, the leaders will ask for feedback and input from their immediate workers (middle management people), then they will finalize the plan and give directives to the staff as an order. The middle management people do all the groundwork.

In doing a project, it is important for the Canadian representative to know who are the power people - the decision makers and who has influence on the leaders and works with these people. If there is a conflict situation, talk to the middle management people casually, convince them, help them understand your approach/difficulties, and they can do a lot of talking for you with their own leaders, more powerful than what you could do for yourself. Of course, you will still meet with the leaders to finalize the resolutions.

From the Western perspective

Although it may vary according to the age and background of individuals in a particular workplace, decisions are usually taken by superiors. "Having a meeting" (kaihui) is a fairly well-developed practice in modern China, especially in organizations affiliated to the government. Meetings are tacitly an opportunity for exchanging ideas, however, they are often actually opportunities of informing management and staff alike of their particular duties and responsibilities over a short-term period. And it’s often the case that management has already received feedback from employees and colleagues before such a meeting takes place.

It is acceptable, and even advisable to go to immediate supervisors for answers and feedback. Communications is always important in China, as well as an opportunity to show deference to your superiors and colleagues. At the same time, a certain amount of individual initiative is expected and respected in China.


You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences.

Source: Global Affairs Canada-Cultural Information

1 Reply to "Business in China: An NAI Guide to Chinese Business Culture Part II"

  • Tess
    January 9, 2017 (1:57 am)

    You deielftiny know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

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