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Understanding Chinese Business Etiquette and Culture

The recent announcement that China is to participate in the UK Nuclear new build programme brings with it the challenge of integrating the culturally diverse teams charged with delivering the projects.

The investors China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) and France’s Électricité de France (EdF), have signed a Strategic Investment Agreement to build the Hinkley Point C project and to undertake joint development of new nuclear power plants at Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex. EDF and CGN have been working as industrial partners for 30 years but with sixty percent of the £18 billion construction cost of the Hinkley project being sourced through the UK supply chain new teams from France, China and the UK will need to collaborate.

Building relationships and collaborating effectively isn’t easy but a good starting point is to comprehend the business etiquette and cultural differences of each group. Knowing these common customs can help to sensitively guide interactions and potentially avoid an embarrassing encounter.

In this blog post we look at some of the key aspects of Chinese Business Etiquette and Culture. As with any such advice it is generalised but should be useful for team members looking to gain a basic understanding of Chinese etiquette.

Key Concepts of Chinese Culture

The Chinese have a number of rules of behaviour:

  • Guanxi: is the fundamental principle of relationships between people, similar in western culture to “who you know” and reciprocity or the sharing of favours with those with whom they have guanxi. The Western concept of being kind to strangers may seem strange to the Chinese whose focus is on one's inner circle, i.e. family, friends and colleagues.
  • Mianzi:  is the concept of 'face' which roughly translates as 'honour' and includes losing face, saving face and giving face. Loss of your patience, failing to accord proper respect for elders and hierarchy, and confronting or putting someone on the spot can cause a loss of face.
  • Li: is about maintaining surface harmony and controlling your true emotions to not show impatience or anxiety.
  • Keqi:  represents politeness and modesty. It may be seen as impolite to be arrogant or to brag.


Business Etiquette

Meeting Etiquette in China

  • Greetings and Introductions - Chinese prefer to be formally introduced typically by their company first, their honorific title, and their surname followed by their given name. For example, Liu Jianguo would be Mr. Jianguo Liu. Chinese who frequently deal with foreigners or travel abroad on business may adopt a Western first name, such as David Liu and in such cases they may request that they be referred to as David, once a relationship has been established. Handshakes are common, however, where in western contexts consideration may be given to the strength of grip, in China consideration is given to who lets go first
  • Rank is important in business relationships with the most senior or oldest person greeted first.
  • Punctuality - is important, being late for an appointment can be taken as being disrespectful.
  • Business cards – are usually presented and received with two hands, given to the most senior person first and may be accepted with a slight bow. Study the business card given to you for a moment to show respect. It would not be good practice to “deal out” your cards.
  • Discussions - Be sensitive to interrupting a Chinese person to take over a discussion and about asking Chinese to turn off their mobile phones as this may cause a loss of face.
  • Social Distance – Some Westerners may find that the Chinese comfort zone is closer than you would normally experience. It would not be usual to hug, back slap or put an arm around someone’s shoulder.
  • Meeting structure: meetings may follow a fairly formal structure, with the senior member of the hosting team leading the meeting and addressing the leading member of the other team. Subordinate members of the Chinese group will not usually speak unless asked to do so by the most senior person.
  • Negotiations - The Chinese have many ways of indicating refusal without actually saying “no”. Commonly you will hear “that would be inconvenient,” or 'they will think about it' or “it will be taken under consideration,” or “it is being discussed”. Decisions may take a longer time than would be the western norms.


Entertaining guests is regarded as an important way of establishing guanxi. There is a demarcation between business and socialising in China, so meals and social events are not expected to be the place for business discussions but rather a time to get better acquainted to see how well everyone can get to know, like and trust each other.

Some rules:

  • Never eat or drink before a host
  • When putting chopsticks down, do not put them parallel on top of the bowl or in the bowl. Instead, put the chopsticks on their holder or rest them diagonally on the plate.
  • The Chinese tend to offer a lot of food, and it is acceptable to refuse food if you have dietary restrictions or allergies. However, it is a sign of politeness to accept some of everything, and sample (even a little of) all dishes served. But don’t eat or drink all of something you don’t like, since this may be taken as a sign that you want more.
  • Taking the last piece of anything may be considered bad luck or shows that you are greedy. It is the host's responsibility to offer a guest the last piece of something; then it is OK to take it.


  • Western gestures that may confuse:
    • Shrugging shoulders
    • Winking
    • The “OK” sign
    • Using an index finger to call someone, Chinese use the hand with fingers motioning downward as in waving.
    • Putting feet on a desk or coffee table (it may be considered rude to show the soles of the shoes)
  • Mutually-understood gestures:
    • Nodding the head up and down for agreement, side to side for disagreement
    • Thumbs up indicating approval
    • Smiling, however, while laughter may be a response to something humorous, it can also mean someone is uncomfortable or in a situation where they do not know how to respond.
  • Chinese customs that are confusing to Westerners:
  • Waving the hand in front of the face to indicate “no”
  • Pointing to the nose to indicate “oneself,” rather than to the chest
  • Team members need to be mindful of sensitive issues such as the single child policy which has recently changed to permitting two children per family.

Communication tips

  • ·        Use short simple sentences
  • ·        Avoid slang
  • ·        Shy away from sarcasm or innuendoes
  • ·        Repeat important statements


Collectivism vs. Individualism: in general, the Chinese are a collective society with a need for group affiliation, whether to their family, friends, work group, or country. In order to maintain a sense of harmony, they will try to act with decorum at all times and will not do anything to cause someone else public embarrassment. This is often observed by the use of silence where they are willing to subjugate their own feelings for the good of the group.

Non-Verbal Communication: as the Chinese strive for harmony and are group orientated, they rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels. Frowning while someone is speaking is interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Therefore, most Chinese maintain an impassive expression when speaking and would not tend to stare into another person's eyes.

Most cultures appreciate it when the other party makes even a few small efforts to understand the group’s culture. Using the most common greeting in Chinese Nǐ hǎo when meeting a colleague can go a long way to breaking down the initial barriers.

Leaving teams to form without careful consideration can lead to distrust or a lack of understanding that undermines team performance. Cross-cultural training and team facilitation can be excellent ways for teams to start breaking down any perceived obstacles, helping them to work as a productive team.

A2O People

A2O People help Employers to Recruit, On-board, Engage, Develop, and Retain, your employees. Our on-boarding services include cross-cultural team facilitation and team coaching that helps newly formed teams to thrive. 

Specialising in the Nuclear, Energy, Water & Construction industries we recognise the need to have a deep understanding of the sectors in order to source talent with the right cultural fit and to implement and sustain effective HR solutions.

Our website shares insightful resources for Utility and Construction Employers and advice for career minded individuals. To learn more visit the A2O People website or call us on 01278 732073.

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