How to Impress Your Chinese Boss
If you plan to do business on the mainland, learn the rules
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu
By Eric Spitznagel
You may be working for the Chinese sooner than you imagine. Not only is the U.S. severely indebted to the People’s Republic, some projections say Chinese investment in U.S. companies could reach $2 trillion in the coming decade. To help you prepare, we assembled a panel of experts to explain the cultural differences and Confucian principles that coud get an uninformed American office worker into trouble.
Reach for your boss’s hand first. “A high-ranking person in the company should never, ever initiate a handshake,” says Brian Su, CEO of Artisan Business Group, a global market consulting firm. A limp grip connotes humility and respect. “Most Chinese think of handshakes as excessive touching,” says etiquette expert Lyudmila Bloch. She suggests a light bow, but there’s no need to kowtow.
Remember business cards? The Chinese still use them. “Make sure it is professionally done. Otherwise, it will be a disaster,” says Peter Hemming, the founder of China Insight. When receiving a card from a Chinese businessperson, make sure to be impressed by it. Once you’ve finished introductions, place the card on the table in front of you, where you can continue to admire it.
No clocks, says Maria Gu, a business coach from Shanghai. The pronunciation of sòngzhōng (“to give clocks”) could also mean “to attend on a dying relative.” A watch is much better, unless it’s fancy. Too much bling is considered garish and embarrassing. “The Chinese enjoy gifts with Western-branded names,” says Bloch. “Like a Mickey Mouse watch.” Seriously? “Yes, a watch from Walt Disney would be very appreciated.”
“Numbers can be auspicious or inauspicious,” says Tao Yue, managing director of China Cultural Consultancy. The number four, say, is a homonym for “death” in Chinese. If you’re on a building’s fourth floor, don’t expect many pop-ins from your boss. Numbers like six and three are much more fortuitous. By far the most coveted number is eight, which sounds like the word for “wealth.”
Be ready to eat your weight in offal. Su recalls a recent business meal in China that consisted of raw pig groin and “kinda chewy” donkey’s penis. But don’t scarf down whatever’s placed in front of you. Fish heads should be reserved for the most important person at the table; the Chinese word for “head” also means “leader.”
Watch your fingers. “Pointing with one finger, the ‘hey you, come here’ finger, that is very, very rude,” says Bloch. To get somebody’s attention in the office, she suggests gesturing at them with your entire hand. Like a martial arts chop? “Well, no, not exactly like that,” she clarifies. “It’s more of a graceful gesture.” Like you’re an orchestra conductor? “If that helps, sure.” You may be working for the Chinese sooner than you imagine. Not only is the U.S. severely indebted to the People’s Republic, some projections say Chinese investment in U.S. companies could reach $2 trillion in the coming decade. To help you prepare, we assembled a panel of experts to explain the cultural differences and Confucian principles that could get an uninformed American office worker into trouble.
Smoking and Drinking
If you want your boss to respect you, channel your inner Don Draper. “Smoking is still a big icebreaker for Chinese businessmen,” says Su; cigarettes are exchanged like business cards (see above). And then there’s the liquor. “If you say you can’t drink alcohol because of health reasons, and yet you … look perfectly healthy, they’ll force you to drink anyway,” laughs Su. “They’ll say, ‘Drink so we can talk business!’”
The age-old system of geomancy has “become a big deal over the last 10 or 15 years,” says Shanghai native Tao. Does that mean you should follow the lead of the Repulse Bay apartment complex in Hong Kong, which features a large hole to accommodate the dragon that supposedly lives in a nearby mountain? “I would totally forget a dragon hole in an American building,” advises Hemming. “Not many dragons in the United States.”