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Common mistakes foreigners do while doing business in China


Eden Collinsworth moved to Beijing in 2011, opened up a cross-cultural consulting company, and wrote a best-selling book about western courtesy for Chinese businessmen. She has also learned a lot about China in the process. She described her experiences in a new book released today, “I Stand Corrected: How Teaching Western Manners in China Became Its Own Unforgettable Lesson.”


In the book, she reveals the top 10 mistakes and cultural issues that may mess up your next business trip, and methods to avoid them.


1. Expecting a standard concept of time


In China, the definition of time does not clearly indicate when one hour begins and ends. For example, to a Westerner, noon is a definite time, while Chinese people regard it as a two-hour period from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.


2. Mistaking loud voices for being hostile


Maybe it is because a great number of people in China are trying to express their opinions, or just a custom of Chinese language, that Chinese people’s voices are of a slightly higher volume than Westerners find comfortable.


3. Misunderstanding Chinese expressions of respect


Although shaking hands is common for Westerners, it is not always a comfortable action for Chinese who consider physical intimacy impolite and disrespectful. When most Chinese shake your hands weakly and only show reservedness during greetings, don’t get angry.


4. Underestimating the importance of exchanging business cards before meetings


A double-sided business card with simplified Chinese on one side is the first step of showing respect to Chinese businessmen. Even though you are quite familiar with the title and position of the person to whom you have been introduced, you should check his carefully card. 


5. Being uncompromising to “guanxi” (relationships)


“Relationships or connections outside the family” might be the closest description of what “guanxi” is as the core of Chinese society and culture. Therefore, Chinese tend to know the person with whom they wish to do business before starting business — the how, why, and when things are done all depend on these relationships.


6. Thinking a meal in China is just a meal


Undoubtedly, you will be invited to lunch or dinner, and it is rude to discuss business during the meal. But that doesn’t mean that the meal isn’t purposeful. Don’t be surprised if people who have not participated in any of the business meetings you’ve attended appear when it’s dinner time.


7. Forgetting table manners


For a Westerner, there is always too much food at the Chinese restaurant’s tables, but you should try every dish. Accept everything what the host offers to you it will be taken as an expression of gratitude and respect for his hospitality.


8. Refusal to toast


It’s bad manners to refuse your hosts offers while in China, even when you have a seemingly reasonable excuse. If you don’t want to drink, excuse yourself before the toasting begins.


9. Taking personal questions as uncourteous


Chinese people may ask you about what most people would want to know but are afraid to ask.  Be prepared for a conversation that often surprisingly involves everything. If you are a man, you might be asked about your financial assets; if you are a woman, you will definitely be asked about your marriage.


10. Ignoring that dignity is more important than money


It is very important to keep face for Chinese people. Any form of refusal will end up losing face, which is why no one should say “no” directly in China. Conversely, one should never think a “yes” in China means reliability, because “yes” in China is a temporary, flexible concept. Even in new capitalist China, dignity is a commodity that is far more important than money.



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