China Flag

China – Cultural Challenges

Shelley Warner, Reloc8 Asia Pacific Group's China partner shares insights into Cultural Challenges in China.

Cultural Challenges - China

Losing Face
Situations of overt conflict or disagreement which embarrass will cause loss of face. Once people lose face, doing business with each other may no longer be an option.
At the start of a formal meal a foreigner needs to propose a toast to the most senior guest/s. Be sure to acknowledge the most senior person first. This is a sign of respect.

Bureaucratic and Guanxi
While foreigners are used to obeying rules and regulations, in China while there are regulations they are not always precise. There are many grey areas, leaving room for interpretation. As a result, Chinese people generally don’t have the same respect for rules and regulations as foreigners. They are more accustomed to using Guanxi (relationships) to solve an issue.

Some Chinese can be very superstitious and there are certain types of gifts which are not welcome or can even be regarded as offensive. These include: scissors, knives, clocks, shoes and umbrellas.
Try to avoid associations with the number four, which the Chinese consider unlucky. The number eight, conversely, is considered lucky.

Foreigners believe that certain things are private such as age and salary. Chinese pay less respect to these privacies, especially older generations.

Express gratitude
Chinese do not have a habit to say thank you to their friends, family and colleagues for receiving their help. Foreigners on the other hand like to express their appreciation and give compliments. Foreigners may find Chinese rude by not being very polite, while Chinese think Foreigners tend to overdo the politeness!

Hospitality & Food
Chinese like to invite people for meals to their hospitality. Chinese will put food they think is tasty on the guests' plates while foreigners prefer to let guests help themselves. Chinese people eat all sorts of animals/animal parts some of which foreigners may find distasteful.

The fact that Chinese do not like to queue, sometimes spit in public and don’t usually give way to pedestrians at a zebra crossing, can come as a cultural shock to foreigners.

Split the bill
Chinese find it very hard to accept the foreigner’s habit of splitting the bill at the end of a meal.

To avoid losing face, Chinese will not overtly show their disagreement or displeasure, instead, they will indirectly express such sentiments, for example by using phrases like maybe or we will see. Foreigners should learn to read these indirect messages. They should also avoid losing their temper and aggressively pressing Chinese on questions they have been reluctant to give definitive answers to. On the other hand, foreigners’ directness and stubbornness is very hard for Chinese to understand and accept.

Foreigners can appear to be too affectionate. Their practice of showing affection in public makes Chinese people uncomfortable, and embarrassed.

Last update: 26 February 2020