Meeting styles in China

Written by Tamara Hagethorn, Nikola Milošević, Jessica Blo January 2014. Posted in Int. Skills, Meeting styles

Meeting styles in China

In China they have a five and a half day workweek of 44 hours. Business in China is normally done Monday through Friday and every other Saturday from 8 am to noon and from 1:00 or 2:00 pm to 5:00 or 6:00 pm. Business meetings tend to focus on building relationships first. Due to the indirectness of the Chinese communication style, meetings will take a long time to get down to business. It may take numerous informal meetings before an agreement can be reached. Through informal meetings, Chinese take time to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect. Do not be surprised if conversations focus on personal matters concerning family, marital status, etc.
Prior to meetings, it is important to send all information to your Chinese colleagues in advance. This should be information describing your company, its history and topics that will be discussed. Due to the polychronic time orientation, it may take a while to receive a response from your Chinese counterpart. Such responses may occur a few days before the planned meeting, or even the same day of the meeting to confirm the time and place. The reason for this is that, lǐngdǎos leaders, are trained to keep their options flexible. More specifically, they wait for better offers that might come along at the last moment.

Meeting etiquette
According to Saxon (2008), punctuality is very important in Chinese business culture. For that reason, for an individual who arrives late, apologizing is a must. Also, it is proper etiquette that a representative awaits meeting participants and escorts them to the room. In addition, the person with the highest rank would enter the room followed by his subordinates.
Chinese enter a meeting by rank, with the highest-ranking person entering first. They will therefore assume that the first member of your group to enter the room is the highest ranked person. The senior Chinese person welcomes everyone that enters the room, and the foreign participants are introduced.
Each participant exchanges his or her business card upon meeting. These business cards should be printed in English on one side and Chinese on the other. Westerners should show their interest by glancing at the details of the card when accepting a business card, as it is unforgivable to put the card immediately in your wallet or briefcase without reading it. Dress code is important. Conservative and simple clothing should be worn, not too flashy and overly fashionable. Women should avoid wearing low-cut tops, excessive jewellery and bareback clothing. It is appropriate for women to wear dresses or pantsuits, but they should also avoid heavy make-up.
Meetings are structured dialogues between principals on both sides and a structured agenda is important and followed. It is also important to remind the Chinese fondly of the last meeting(s) and to mention the positive outcome for both parties. After having a little chitchat, the Chinese lǐngdǎo, meaning the leader, will give a short speech and then invite the foreign principal to speak first. This is typical Chinese, as they prefer to reacting and listening to others’ ideas, rather than setting the agenda themselves. Hereby they gain the upper hand. In Chinese meetings the bosses do all the talking, not the subordinates, unless they are addressed to do so. The leader/boss of your side is responsible for the engagement, discussion and decisions. The chairperson can also, without any warning, ask anyone to respond to what someone has said. China is also a society of multi-taskers, and meetings may be frequently disrupted by phone calls and boisterous conversations. Asking one’s counterpart to turn off their mobile phone may lead to loss of face. The lǐngdǎo is the one who decides when the meeting is over. Sometimes a group photograph is taken of the meeting participants; it helps to end the meeting with a good atmosphere. The foreign group leaves the room first, in a hierarchy order and then the Chinese group will leave shortly after.

Seating arrangements
Seating arrangements in Chinese business meetings are according to rank (Reuvid, 2008). Generally guests are escorted to their seats. If that does not happen and there are no tent cards for seating, then it is appropriate to ask the boss on the Chinese side, where he/she wants you and your group to sit.
According to Reuvid (2008), it is also important to sit after the Chinese boss sits. In most situations the seat positioned facing the door is the seat of honour, and is reserved for the Chinese boss. If the meeting is held around a large round conference table, then the guest of honour is seated directly opposite the host. The other high-ranking guests sit in the same area and the remainder of the guests sit in the remaining chairs. The Chinese will most likely sit on one side of the table and the foreigners on the other. The lower ranking attendees are placed at the end of the table.

Convincing strategies
According to The Canadian Trade Commissioner (n.d.), Chinese are not fond of doing business with foreigners who they have just met. Relationships between business associates are important and it is expected to get to know one another before conducting business. Initially, patience is important for doing business in China. Using mutual contacts may be an important strategy to help establish trust with one’s Chinese counterpart. In addition, by sending a picture, which was made in the first meeting, a Westerner may have a better chance to arrange a second meeting. It is mentioned by Alon (2003) that entertainment is also a critical part of Chinese business culture. If a Westerner is invited to have drinks with the Chinese, this opens the door for him or her to build a relationship. The Westerner should bear in mind that he or she will be expected to drink as well.

Slow tactics
Chinese employees are discouraged from exhibiting too much individuality, so if Chinese are vague or are unwilling to give a straight answer, a Western counterpart should not in any circumstance rush the Chinese into saying ‘no’ or giving a specific answer. Chinese also often hesitate to provide information, because they are concerned that it will be used against them. In addition, under no circumstances will information that contradicts government policy or position be accepted in business meetings or during meals or social events. When sharing information, it is important for the Westerners to comply with that. Also, Westerners should present their visual aids such as charts, tables, data, and transparencies in both English and metric units, as this will be better appreciated and understood by the Chinese. This should be done with a black type on a white background, as colours have various meanings in Chinese culture. Take care not to misread body language. To Westerners nodding is seen as nodding to an agreement, whereas in Chinese culture there are not agreements to what is being spoken about. Chinese generally nod their heads or make affirmative utterances during conversations. This shows that they are listening and they understand what is being said. Furthermore, Chinese view smiling as a friendly gesture. A smile to the Chinese is like a handshake amongst the Westerners. This is in fact, universal in China. Additionally, in Chinese culture steady eye contact is also viewed as inappropriate, especially when subordinates talk with their superiors.

When speaking English, it is advised to speak slowly, as Chinese do not always follow and as they tend not to show that. Due to the Chinese non-verbal communication method and their impassive expressions, it will be difficult for a Westerner to take notice of any confusion amongst the Chinese.
Since communications can also be a major challenge during a meeting with a Chinese business or government agency it is important to be accompanied by a translator. More specifically, it may be smart for a Westerner to bring their own translator, so that they will know that what they are hearing and saying is translated completely accurately and that their interests are being protected.