Put your best foot forward in China

To take a break from the doom and gloom of how to fail in China and in honor of the year of the horse, here is a three-part series on tips for putting your best foot forward in China.

To give you an understanding of how things have changed in China and how our views can be somewhat narrow, I am using a source I ran across which was quoted by the eDiplomat, otherwise known as the “Global Portal for Diplomats.” The site credits its advice on China to a 1997 book by Mary Murray Bosrock and Craig MacIntosh, titled “Asia: A Fearless Guide to International Communication and Behavior (Put Your Best Foot Forward).”

The 1997 passages are quoted from that source. The 2014 observations are my own.

The people

1997: “Deeply rooted in Chinese society is the need to belong and conform to a unit, whether the family, a political party or an organization. The family is the focus of life for most Chinese. Age and rank are highly respected. However, to the dismay of older people, today’s young people are rapidly modernizing, wearing blue jeans and sunglasses, drinking Coke and driving motorbikes.”

2014: This rather post-World War II era encapsulation of Chinese people, while conforming to our stereotypes of Communist China, is more than a bit dated. People in China are as varied as anywhere else and while family remains central, it is weakening due to two income families and urban migration. The dismay of the older generation has shifted from motorbike, blue jeans and sunglasses to fast cars, designer clothes and naked marriages (where a husband does not own a home and a couple rents after getting married). While age and rank are respected, increasingly ability and accomplishment are winning the day. China has the youngest average age millionaires and billionaires of any country on earth.

Meeting and greeting

1997: “Shake hands upon meeting. Chinese may nod or bow instead of shaking hands, although shaking hands has become increasingly common. When introduced to a Chinese group, they may greet you with applause. Applaud back. Senior persons begin greetings. Greet the oldest, most senior person before others. During group introductions, line up according to seniority with the senior person at the head of the line.”

2014: Shaking hands is now the norm, and groups tend to exchange cards rather than applause. No one has bowed to me in any meeting except upon leaving in the 15 years I have been visiting and living in China. In terms of whom you greet first, if it’s a diplomatic function, it is the person in charge, not the oldest in the room. Most bosses and up-and-coming government leaders are young. Do not expect the oldest person in the room to be the most senior. In business meetings, the most senior level person in the room will greet you first. Generally, the boss will be the last person to enter the meeting, which is often a power play game. It is as always important to be pleasant and respectful to everyone regardless of their age or position.

Body language

1997: “The Chinese dislike being touched by strangers. Do not touch, hug, lock arms, back slap or make any body contact. Clicking fingers or whistling is considered very rude. Never put your feet on a desk or a chair. Never gesture or pass an object with your feet. Blowing one’s nose in a handkerchief and returning it to one’s pocket is considered vulgar by the Chinese. To beckon a Chinese person, face the palm of your hand downward and move your fingers in a scratching motion. Never use your index finger to beckon anyone. Sucking air in quickly and loudly through lips and teeth expresses distress or surprise at a proposed request. Attempt to change your request, allowing the Chinese to save face. Chinese point with an open hand. Never point with your index finger.”

2014: Few people like it when a stranger touches them, but after a few rounds of drinks and songs at a KTV, things change, except in the case of opposite sexes. Under no circumstances should there be any touching or hugging going on in front of the group, no matter what the circumstances. It would be a huge embarrassment for everyone concerned. I have never known when clicking fingers, whistling, making noises or faces was not considered rude, so I am not sure why it would be mentioned as something of particular interest to Chinese. Blowing your nose should not be done in front of the group. You are best advised to move off to the side or go to the bathroom.

Corporate culture

1997: “The Chinese are practical in business and realize they need Western investment, but dislike dependency on foreigners. They are suspicious and fearful of being cheated or pushed around by foreigners, who are perceived as culturally and economically corrupt. It is very difficult to break through the ‘them vs. us’ philosophy (foreign partner vs. Chinese). In personal relationships, the Chinese will offer friendship and warm hospitality without conflict, but in business they are astute negotiators. Punctuality is important for foreign businesspeople. Being late is rude. Meetings always begin on time.”

2014: How quickly things change. The days when the relationship was about investment have largely passed. Yes, Chinese firms, like all firms, are looking for cheap money, professional expertise and technology, and as China attempts to deleverage it has dried up financing. But today, we need Chinese financing for our debts and access to their markets to both produce and sell our products. In terms of dependency, this is not a particularly Chinese issue, as it applies to everyone. The ‘them vs. us’ philosophy applies to both sides. In terms of meetings, for government meetings, punctuality is a must but I have been to few business meetings that started as scheduled in the last 10 years. The excuse most often used these days is the traffic, which tends to be fairly difficult in most first- and second-tier cities.

Einar Tangen, formerly from Milwaukee, now lives and works in Beijing, China. He is an adviser to Heilongjiang Province, Hebei Province QEDTZ, China.org.cn, China International Publishing Group, Beijing Baotong and DGI DESIGN. He is also a weekly public affairs commentator for CCTV News’ Dialogue and the author of “The Kunshan Way,” an economic development history of China’s leading county level city. While in Milwaukee, he was a partner at Jackson, Morgan and Tangen, president of E-Tech and a senior vice president at Stifel Nicolaus. He chaired various boards in Milwaukee and was a member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago. Readers who would like to submit questions or suggest areas of interest can send an e-mail to steve.jagler@biztimes.com.

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