Know Before You Go

Social etiquette in China

Maintaining public harmony is central to Chinese society. It goes without saying, but failure to show respect or display confrontational, aggressive or arrogant behaviour should be avoided at all times.

If you’re visiting China for the first time you may be unfamiliar with the local customs and protocol. To ensure you get the most out of your time at Seatrade Cruise Asia Pacific, here is our guide to etiquette in China.

Introductions

An important part of any meeting you may have at Seatrade Cruise Asia Pacific, introductions in China come with an unspoken set of guidelines. Keep the following points in mind:

Key information:

  • Business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction – have one side written in Chinese using simplified characters
  • Seating is usually arranged by rank
  • Introductions should be made in order of seniority to show respect
  • It is common to look towards the ground when greeting someone
     

DO:

  • Arrive on time; punctuality is valued
  • Introduce people by their title, family name, job title and company
  • Stand up when being introduced and remain standing until the introductions are over
  • Shake hands - avoid body contact such as hugging as public displays of affection are frowned upon
  • Examine a business card before putting it on the table next to you or in a business card case – don’t put it away immediately
  • Use both hands to give and receive business cards
     

DON’T

  • Use someone’s first name until you are invited to do so. You should use title and family name (married women are known as Mrs but they keep their maiden name)

Communication

The way you communicate during your time in China has a large impact on how you are perceived by your peers. Here are a few important things to remember:

Key information:

  • Chinese people find it difficult to say "no" and will say "maybe" or "we'll see" where applicable
  • Chinese may also avoid raising disagreements in meetings and stay quiet to save face
  • Be prepared to be asked personal questions about your age, marital status, children

DO:

  • Ensure written material is available in both English and Chinese
  • Use black ink on white background - colours have specific meanings
  • If possible, have an interpreter present

DON’T:

  • Raise your voice; this is considered to be very rude
  • Talk over others
  • Interrupt periods of quietness; silence is often used to think about what is being said and how to respond
  • Expect any decisions to be made at your meetings - decision making is a lengthy and hierarchical process

Body language and behaviour

Communication doesn’t just stop at speaking. As with many cultures, your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice are observed to understand how someone feels, so keep these points in mind:

Key information:

  • Frowning while someone is speaking is seen as a sign of disagreement – people usually maintain impassive expressions when speaking
  • Sucking air in quickly and loudly expresses disapproval or surprise at a request – try to change it to save face
  • Blowing your nose and putting the handkerchief or tissue into your pocket is considered vulgar

DO:

  • You may be applauded and you should applaud back

DON’T:

  • Ask Chinese people to turn off their mobile phones because this will cause loss of face
  • Stare into another person's eyes – this is considered very disrespectful

Gifts

Whether you are giving or receiving a gift during your time in China, it is important to remember the following:

Key information:

  • If you are planning to give a quantity of anything, eight is a lucky number
  • Gifts may be refused three times before they are accepted

DO:

  • Present and receive gifts with both hands
  • Wrap gifts in red and gold, as they are perceived to be the positive colours

DON’T:

  • Open a gift when it has been received – save it until the meeting is over
  • Give flowers or clocks - they are associated with funerals
  • Wrap gifts in white or black paper – these colours symbolise death
  • Give four of anything – it is an unlucky number

Meals

Whether you’re planning a meal with prospective clients or find yourself invited along, try to remember the social etiquette in China when eating:

Key information:

  • It is impolite to refuse a drink but sipping is acceptable if you want to restrict your alcohol intake
  • Holding your glass lower than those of more senior people is a sign of respect
  • Tipping is becoming more common but older workers may consider it to be insulting

DO:

  • Wait for your host to start eating first
  • Try everything that is offered
  • Return chopsticks to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak
  • Hold the rice bowl close to your mouth while eating
  • Leaving some food on your plate during each course shows that you appreciate your host’s generosity
  • Sip your drink in reply if you are toasted

DON’T:

  • Talk about business if you are invited for a meal – it is a social event, not a work event
  • Arrive early - you will be seen to be hungry and lose face
  • Eat the last piece from the serving tray
  • Place chopsticks upright in your bowl - this symbolises death
  • Put bones in your bowl – if you need to move them, place on the table or a bowl for that purpose
  • Start drinking until you toast others at the table - raise your glass and make eye contact