Etiquette in China
Bowing from the shoulders is a well-known way of meeting and greeting in China. You should be aware that you are not always expected to bow or nod. Handshakes are accepted but it is probably best to wait to see if your Chinese associate initiates the handshake. During greetings and introductions, a lack of expression and a gentle or timid handshake are to be expected and should never be interpreted as shyness or weakness. Try to retain a formal approach to greeting, as both over-familiarity and informality are not conventional practices, especially in new business relationships.
Hierarchical relationships are intrinsic to Chinese culture, so always address the most senior member of a group first. This is usually the first person to enter the room. If you are meeting with a group or workforce you may be greeted with applause. It is considered polite and respectful behaviour to applaud in return.
When directly addressing someone, formality is expected and well respected. You should only use a title, such as Mr., Dr, or Director, followed by the family name. In China, the family name is the equivalent of the surname, but it is written and said first. For example, if a man is introduced as Li Jinhao, you would then be expected to address him as Mr. Li. However, be aware that some Chinese people that are in regular contact with Westerners may swap their family and given names around to match Western protocol. Remember that using given names is only really initiated later on in friendship or business relationship.
When in PublicIt’s worth remembering that in China, public outbursts and expressions of emotion are considered to be uncouth. The Chinese are sometimes considered as modest and shy - this is partly due to a cultural concept known as ‘Mianzi’. It basically refers to the ‘Face’, in the context of ‘saving face’ or ‘losing face’ and one’s status. Self-respect and courtesy is also very important in Chinese culture, so politeness, modesty and a degree of control over public displays of emotion are considered as virtuous. The Chinese may appear quite introverted and aloof when meeting for the first time. Try not to assume that this is a sign of unfriendliness or hostility - it is, in fact, a sign of respect.
You may notice that the Chinese don’t use their hands to emphasise words or a point when talking. So when conversing, refrain from exaggerated gesticulations and overtly emotive or strange facial expressions. You should also never try to argue, shame, embarrass or demean someone in public in China – it’s considered extremely undignified and discourteous. If you have an issue that needs resolving, make sure it’s done with a more formal approach and in private.
If you’re out and about in public, don’t be surprised to see a lot of same-sex handholding. This is fairly common in China – however be aware that public displays of affection are frowned upon, and any displays of affection between the same sexes are not at all tolerated.
In public and social situations, try not to put your hands in your mouth, as this is thought to be quite crude. Whistling is really disliked, as is nail biting. Also, try not to point with your index finger – use an open hand instead. It’s thought to be bad social etiquette to show the soles of your feet and pick your teeth after eating. However, you might be surprised to learn that despite this, emptying the contents of your nose onto the ground and spitting isn’t really an issue.
Eating and DiningWhen attending a dinner in China, be prepared for some markedly different cultural practices. Contrary to Western etiquette, talking with your mouth full when eating is perfectly acceptable in China. Slurping food is also common and shouldn’t be met with any disdain. Fervent burping is actually considered to be a sign of gratitude and satisfaction.
Try sampling all the dishes that are being served, as this is regarded as polite. At first you should decline as this is represents that highly respected virtue, modesty. You don’t want your hosts to think that you are greedy! However, you will be offered food again and this time it is fine to accept. When you are eating, don’t wave your chopsticks about or use them as a pointing tool, and never leave them standing in your food. However, try to leave a little food at the end of your meal as it signals that you are full and not a glutton, as well as gesturing that the host has provided more than enough. You should compliment your host on the food, despite their (expected) disagreement!
It is common to be served tea with your meal. Your host will usually top up your teacup, and the proper etiquette is to tap your index and middle finger of your right hand on the table. This indicates respect and gratitude for the host’s gesture. Lastly, it is expected that once the meal has finished you should swiftly leave with any other guests.
Gifts & SymbolismOne popular Chinese custom that you should be aware of is the giving of small gifts. They are a sign of courtesy and should be given if you are invited into someone’s home or business. Suitable gifts can be anything from keepsakes to food. It’s a good idea to try and give something indicative of where you come from. NEVER give a Chinese person a clock as a gift – this would be seen as a very sinister action as clocks are indicative of death and funerals. Scissors and knives also make bad gifts in China, as they represent the cutting off a friendship.
As with food, if you are offering a gift you should expect the recipient to refuse a few times. You should insist and eventually they will accept, but won’t open the gift in your presence. You should be aware that some colours are very symbolic in China – for instance white is associated with death, and black has connotations of disaster, so never use these colours to wrap a gift. Red however is considered a sign of good luck, as are even numbers, especially 6 and 8.
While the number 8 is considered lucky, the number 4 is unlucky. Even in hotels, many will skip the "fourth" floor just as many here will skip the 13th.