If you’re not working for the Chinese yet, you will be soon enough. 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 for the coming occupation, we assembled a panel of experts to explain the cultural differences that could get an uninformed American office worker into trouble. Study these tips closely and you’ll be better prepared to make a positive first impression on your new Chinese overlord…. er, employer.
Something as simple as a handshake might seem to be idiot-proof, but there are a myriad of ways to screw it up. “Sometimes it even confuse us,” admits Brian Su, the CEO of Artisan Business Group, an international market consulting firm. Your best bet when making introduction to your Chinese employer is to reach for their hands first. “A high-ranking person in the company should never, ever initiate a handshake,” says Su. And try not to squeeze too hard, as a limp grip is considered a gesture of humility and respect. But even the most limp-wristed handshake might be too much intimacy. “Most Chinese think of handshakes as excessive touching,” says Lyudmila Bloch, a Russian-born international etiquette expert in New York. “They only do it with family members.” She recommends greeting with a light bow, without getting too carried away about it. “You don’t want to kowtow,” she says, referring to the ancient custom of greeting the Emperor of China by dropping to the floor and knocking your forehead on the floor nine times. Abusing your cranium, says Bloch, “is not necessary unless someone committed an extreme crime like murder, and then you need to apologize for their company.”
2. Business Cards
Remember business cards? They may seem as antiquated as fax machines or cell phones the size of shoe boxes. But the Chinese still use them, and they expect you to do the same. Don’t just send an intern out to get something fast and cheap. “Make sure it is professionally done otherwise it will be a disaster,” says Peter Hemming, the founder and managing director of China Insight Ltd, a business consulting firm based in Dorset, England. He recommends getting a card with a little pizazz, printed on expensive paper stock with fancy gold lettering. If your business card looks like the ticket stub to a Lady Gaga show, you’re on the right track. When receiving a card from a Chinese business person, make sure to be really, really, really impressed by it. “Read it slowly and then make a comment to show you have read it and therefore shown respect to the card and thereby the person,” says Hemming. He recommends asking a question pertaining to the card’s information, something like “How long have you been Sales Director? It must be a very demanding job!” After you’ve exhausted all card conversation, place the card on the table in front of you, where you can continue to admire it from afar throughout the meeting.
Give a belt to one of your American co-workers and you’ll likely get a sarcastic reaction like, “Wow, thanks for the boring gift.” But give a belt to your Chinese boss and you’re essentially announcing your romantic intentions. A belt symbolizes a desire to “hold them” forever, which is maybe not an emotion you should be expressing to an employer. “If you have something else than belt, please consider others,” pleads Maria Gu, a business coach from Shanghai, China. “It is too personal that usually give to a private friend, not the business associate.” A clock is also a terrible idea, as the Chinese pronunciation of sòngzhōng (“to give clocks”) is too similar to sòngzhōng (“to attend upon a dying relative.”) A wristwatch is much a better idea, unless it’s especially fancy. Too much bling, unless it’s on a business card, is considered garish and embarrassing. Etiquette coach Bloch recommends something more simple and distinctly American. “The Chinese enjoy gifts with Western-branded names,” she says. “Like a Mickey Mouse watch.” Seriously? “Yes,” she insists. “A watch from Walt Disney would be very appreciated.”
“Numbers can be auspicious or inauspicious,” says Shanghai native Tao Yue, the managing director of China Cultural Consultancy. You may not think twice about your company’s phone number or street address, but to a Chinese business person, all numbers come with baggage. The number four, for instance, is a homonym for death in Chinese. If your office is on the building’s fourth floor, don’t expect many pop-ins from your Chinese employer. Numbers like six and three are much more fortuitous, and seven is either fantastic or terrible depending on who you believe. It’s bad because it rhymes with the Chinese word for “certain death,” but it’s good because the Chinese word for seven is also the same word for “positive energy.” Nine is always a safe bet, once held in high esteem by emperors because, according to Tao Yue, “it’s the biggest single-digit number.” But by far the most coveted number is 8, which sounds similar enough to the Chinese word for “wealth” and “prosperity” to make some gullible-minded Chinese executives believe that the two things are somehow related. “Many business people spend a lot of money to purchase telephone numbers or license plates that have a string of 8s,” says Tao Yue. Surround yourself with as many eights as you can, from office extensions to pricing proposals, and you’ll soon become your Chinese employer’s good luck charm.
You might as well get used to it; if you want to show your new Chinese employer that you’re a team player, you’re going to be eating your weight in offal. Brian Su says he’s always shocked by what’s served during dinner business meetings. He recalls a recent meal with colleagues in China that consisted of raw pig groin and donkey’s penis, which he admits was “kinda chewy.” Etiquette coach Bloch agrees, saying that the Chinese “will eat everything from the bird nests to the snakes, everything that grows and walks.” But don’t necessarily scarf down whatever’s placed in front of you, especially if it’s fish. Fish is considered a delicacy in China, particularly the head. “It is customary to offer the fish head first to the most elderly person at the table or the guest of honor or the most important person in the company,” says Bloch. This is at least in part because the Chinese word for “head” also means “leader,” so obviously such a symbolic crunchy snack can’t be squandered on a low-level drone. Also, whenever possible, refrain from singing that old Dr. Demento song, as the joke will definitely not translate, even the part that goes “Rolly polly fish heads, eat them up, yum.”
6. Hand Gestures
In Western society, most hand gestures are pretty innocuous, save for the middle finger. If you flip one of your co-workers the bird, especially your boss, you’re asking for trouble. But pointing at them with your index finger? That’s harmless, right? Well, not to your Chinese boss. “Pointing with one finger, the ‘hey you, come here’ finger, that is very, very rude,” says etiquette coach Bloch. She suggests that when attempting to get somebody’s attention in the office, gesture at them with your entire hand. Don’t point at them, karate chop towards them. “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.” Our recommendation? Just keep your hands in your pockets and nod a lot.
7. Smoking and Drinking
Doing business with the Chinese often requires channeling your inner Don Draper. If you want to know how to prove to your Chinese employer that you’re a professional worthy of respect, just study the AMC series Mad Men. First and foremost, you’re going to have to take up smoking. “Smoking is still a big ice-breaker for Chinese businessmen,” says Brian Su. He says that in many corporate meetings in China, cigarettes are exchanged like business cards. If you want to abstain from nicotine, for the love of god, don’t lecture them that smoking can cause cancer. “That’s will only offend them and demonstrate that you are not to be taken seriously,” says Su. “Let them smoke and you can smoke second hand.” And then there’s the liquor, which Su claims is consumed in volumes that most Americans cannot possibly hope to keep up to. “Chinese guys drink hard liquor, like 60 or 65 proof,” he says. They will bully you to drink with them and it’s probably a good idea to join in, even though it will probably kill you. “If you say no, you can’t drink alcohol because of health reasons, and yet you’re a young guy who looks perfectly healthy, they’ll force you to drink anyway,” laughs Su. “They’ll say ‘Drink so we can talk business!’” And what happens after an evening of heavy drinking with the Chinese? According to Su, it just leads to intoxicated karaoke and group visits to massage parlors. “That’s very typical,” he says. “Especially if they like you.” Whether you follow through is entirely at your discretion. “It depends on how badly you want to do business with them,” Su says.
8. Feng Shui
Feng shui, the age-old Chinese system of decorative geomancy, is popular enough in the United States that you probably know enough to fake it. The question is, will redesigning your office or cubicle following the principles of feng shui impress your Chinese employer? Our experts agree: Maybe. “Very small amount of Chinese know what is feng shui,” says Maria Gu. “Unless this Chinese colleague or boss is already familiar with feng shui and how it can be used for improve business, they won’t care.” But Tao Yue of the China Cultural Consultancy is more optimistic. Feng shui, she says, has “become a big deal over the last ten or fifteen years. It might be wise for an American company working closely with Chinese business partners to engage a recognized feng shui expert.” But just how far do you take it? Should you follow the lead of the Repulse Bay apartment complex in Hong Kong, one of the most famous feng shui buildings in China, which features a large hole to accommodate the dragon that purportedly lives in a nearby mountain? How impressed or horrified would your Chinese employers be if they arrived at their new acquisition only to discover that their employees had taken out one of the walls, making the office more dragon-friendly? “I would totally forget a dragon hole in an American building,” advises Peter Hemming. “Not many dragons in the United States, unless you include Hilary Clinton.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the January 6th, 2012 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)