Cultural Differences When Doing Business In China

China is a wonderful, exciting place full of friendly people, stunning sights, tasty food, and so much more. While the plethora of differences can be exciting to a newcomer, they can also be a little intimidating. China’s customs are likely far different from your own, so if you’re doing business here, it pays to know how to conduct yourself. The last thing you want is to look like a fool in a foreign land, so check out these five major cultural differences to keep in mind when doing business in China.

Face Is Paramount

Have you ever heard of the concept of saving face? Well, in China, saving face comes before anything else. The idea of face is synonymous with dignity. By and large, Chinese people will act to preserve everyone’s outward dignity. They won’t be quick to make promises that they aren’t sure they can keep, and they expect the same of you. If they offer you a gift or some kind of experience, it’s important to accept. Unless it will literally kill you, it’s much better to accept someone’s generosity rather than decline and make everyone lose face. Loss of face is one of the worst things someone can experience in Chinese culture, so always try to be subtle and considerate enough to preserve the face of any clients or business partners.

Respect Chinese Values

Many Chinese people are patriotic and very proud of their customs, history, and national achievements. While you may have your own take on the Chinese political situation, or maybe you’ve seen some things that you don’t really like, it’s best not to bring it up. Insulting the nation or local customs is a sure way to insult your host and sabotage your business’s efforts. Naturally, you will come across things that you may find jarring, but you’re better off focusing on the positives when talking to Chinese people. Furthermore, China has a very conservative culture that’s heavily influenced by Confucianism, so it’s a good idea to read up on the basics of Confucianism to better understand the values and beliefs of the local people.


To save face for everyone involved, Chinese people may be very indirect when asked to commit to something or give an answer. Chinese people don’t want to make a promise without being 100% certain that they can follow through, and they also don’t want to insult you and make you lose face by blatantly saying no. When you ask a question or try to get a straightforward yes or no, you’ll often hear a noncommittal phrase instead. This may seem frustrating, but they’re just trying to respect you and avoid a loss of face. You’ll get a more direct answer after they mull it over, so just be patient.

Language and Honorifics

Chinese people speak Chinese languages. That’s no secret. Whether they were brought up speaking Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, or some other Chinese language, there’s a pretty high chance that they aren’t a native English speaker. With that in mind, it would be wise to prepare yourself for Chinese-English accents and speech patterns. Even if someone has a very thick accent, you should focus and pay attention to try to understand them. They’ve worked incredibly hard to learn English, and their English is likely much better than your Mandarin. Since they’re already putting in so much effort to speak English, you’d better include Chinese translations on any business cards, documents, or presentations. Doing business in a foreign language can be exhausting, so a good translation makes your business materials easier to follow, and it shows them that you care.

If someone has a business title, then refer to them by their title. Director Zhang has worked hard to achieve his position, so calling him Mr. Zhang cheapens his accomplishments. Proper use of honorifics shows that you’re paying attention, and their use is a basic sign of respect among Chinese businesspeople.


Guanxi is a personal connection and relationship with someone. If you want to do business in China, then you must establish personal relationships. If they don’t have any sort of relationship with you, then they won’t be open to doing business with your company. For this reason, it’s important to form close bonds and establish guanxi with your hosts. While business in the west can be very impersonal and to the point, doing business in China is the exact opposite. To establish guanxi, you’ll be going out, singing karaoke, grabbing beers, and munching on the local cuisine.

When someone invites you out for a night on the town, you’d better accept it. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather be in bed. Are you in a crabby mood because of jet lag? Too bad. Put on a happy face, graciously accept their invitation, and try your best to show them that you’re having a good time. Refusing an invitation is like spitting in someone’s face, and it will result in a loss of face for everyone. Try to follow the flow of the conversation, and don’t bring up business unless one of your hosts brings it up first. Outings are for them to get to know you better, so you shouldn’t expect to seal the deal in the middle of a karaoke bar.

At a restaurant, don’t be the first to eat. It’s disrespectful, and you’ll look like a callous pig. Generally, the oldest member with the highest rank is expected to be the first one to dig in. Chinese people may add random food items to your plate. That’s completely normal, so just roll with it. Although you are expected to finish your plate in many countries, it’s polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate when you’re done eating in China. If you have an empty plate, then they’ll assume that you’re still hungry, and they’ll keep ordering dishes and piling on the food.

You’re Expected to Drink

China has a heavy drinking culture, and it’s considered rude to refuse a drink. They will likely treat you to multiple rounds of baijiu, the Chinese equivalent of high-proof vodka, so make sure that you don’t go out on an empty stomach. If you’re sober or have a medical condition, then maybe this trip isn’t for you. If you absolutely must go, then it’s best to stress that you have a medical condition that prevents you from drinking alcohol. Even if it’s a lie, you should just leave it at that. When making a toast raising glasses before taking a drink, you never want your glass to be higher than everyone else’s. Lowering your glass is a sign of humility and deference to the person with the highest glass.

Adam Richards

About Adam Richards

Adam Richards is a semi-retired business professional originally from Bangor, Maine. He spent the majority of his career in sales and marketing where he rose to the marketing lead of a Fortune 1000 company. He then moved on to helping people as a career counselor that specifically helped bring families to self-sufficiency through finding them rewarding careers. He has now returned to Bangor for his retirement and spends his free time writing. This blog will be about everything he learned throughout his career. He'll write on career, workplace, education and technology issues as well as on trends, changes, and advice for the Maine job market and its employers.