Basics of Chinese Business Etiquette

Lawrence Leung compares Western and Chinese notions of professionalism

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China is becoming an increasingly popular country for new university graduates and young professionals to begin their careers or add value to their current résumé. Knowing how to act in a business setting and the cultural differences between working in the West and in China are crucially important.

Lawrence Leung is the General Manager of Prestige Education Consultancy, which places Chinese students in British schools and advises corporate clients on business etiquette. Leung spoke about the basics of business etiquette on Oct. 29 at an inter-chamber event for young professionals. Afterward, Leung offered more specifics on the differences between Western and Chinese business etiquette and gave his advice for new graduates and young professionals.

What are the biggest differences between business etiquette in the West and in China?

Some of the most notable include the way etiquette is used (to) give face, enforce professional hierarchies and develop relationships.

For example, in Chinese business etiquette, business cards are exchanged at the beginning of the meeting with two hands, with the two most senior people in the room exchanging cards first, and then waiting for the next most senior person to exchange cards with them, and so on. Both hands are used when exchanging cards, and the cards sit on the table for the duration of the meeting, until they are stowed in a briefcase or card holder.

By contrast, Westerners will often exchange business cards at the end of a meeting, and only one hand is necessary, as using two hands can be seen as … overly eager at best.

Business in China seems to go a heck of a lot quicker than it does in the West! The pace and work ethic seems to be a lot quicker, although I would say that sometimes the frantic nature means small, but crucial, details are overlooked. Email is considered a tad long-winded and more innovative methods of communication like WeChat or QQ are preferred.

What advice would you give to young professionals or new graduates in regards to business etiquette and personal branding?

I would give the advice that the soft skills matter just as much. Organizations don’t just want those who can navigate a spreadsheet and drive a hard bargain. They want employees with exemplary people skills who can entertain and manage clients in a civil, courteous and professional manner with ease. Too many in the world of work realize this too late on and reach a ceiling. It’s not rocket science to learn, either, so there is no excuse. 

In a networking event, when would be a good time to interrupt a group conversation to introduce yourself?

Look for open body language first – never interrupt a closed group. Approach the group, stand just a few paces outside, smile and make eye contact with someone, and wait for an encouraging smile or gesture back for you to join. Ideally, you do this when you can hear a gap in the conversation.