China is kind of a big deal. It is the world’s second largest economy and home to 600,000 expats. However, Chinese culture is based on Confucian values that westerners have little exposure to beyond tacky motivational posters. Even though I grew up in a Chinese-American household, I still experienced culture shock while interning in Shanghai last summer. Here’s a crash course on two pillars of Chinese culture, mianzi and guanxi, and how they relate to Chinese business etiquette.
Mianzi, or face, is the self-esteem and reputation of an individual. While Americans value confrontation, the Chinese prioritize sensitivity to preserve both parties’ mianzi. Directly pointing out somebody’s mistakes, expressing anger, or prematurely pushing for a decision can make you lose face. The key is to not openly embarrass or disagree with somebody, but to find a common idea and build upon it. Likewise, you can gain face by being skilled in your field or receiving praise from a superior. Most executives won’t expect employees to bow and initiate a tea ceremony when they enter the room, but the Confucian values of maintaining harmonious, hierarchical relationships are still relevant.
Guanxi is often defined as one’s network or relationships, but more importantly, it stands for mutual obligations. Formal meetings are enough to close deals in many countries, but in China, relationships must first be built over drinks or dinner. Guanxi is a natural extension of Confucian values such as collectivism, obligation, and loyalty. Establishing guanxi takes time, but the relationship is stronger and built around reciprocal favors. Ever wonder why Chinese people at restaurants engage in mortal combat over the bill? Reciprocal favors, that’s why.
Expats must understand how to behave in meetings to gain face and build a trusting network. Business cards should be exchanged with two hands, a slight bow, and a brief study of the card before everyone is seated. Meetings often begin with icebreakers and will have an ultimate goal, but no set schedule. The Chinese are willing to compromise for a long term win-win, but it is not uncommon to renegotiate terms that were previously agreed upon. Overall, things are more fluid and less by the book since trust plays a bigger role.
In order to develop trust, business is rarely discussed at meals. You will be asked private questions about your marital status, job, or relatives, all while observing countless seemingly arbitrary rules. Don’t eat or drink before the host or stick chopsticks vertically in your rice bowl. If you don’t sample every dish, you may be considered picky, but if you take the last piece of a dish, you may be considered greedy. You will eventually crave the simplicity of Panda Express, but remember that what happens at the dinner table will lead to progress in the meeting room.
The prioritization of mianzi and guanxi aims to keep society civil and foster mutually beneficial business deals. However, mianzi’s emphasis on sensitivity may stifle constructive debate and the importance of guanxi may serve as a barrier to entry for foreign companies. Regardless, expats must understand Chinese culture to adjust business practices and appeal to the vast Chinese consumer base. I also like to think of mianzi as my personal brand and guanxi as my network, which are still crucial for us in the United States. With that being said, I shall leave you with one last piece of advice from an old friend of mine:
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”
If you would like to read more about my internship in Shanghai, click on the seal below.
– Roger Lam, 林浩哲