It would be jubilant to see your UK-based business flourish in the Chinese market owing to huge opportunities out there, but you may also be jittery about the cultural misinterpretation that could jeopardise a relationship with Chinese business partners and slow down your international business growth.
Over a few years, I was teaching Business Chinese to a group of a director and managers of Sales and Marketing in a company. The company that Bell, John and Helen worked for extended its business links with China. These three flew out to visit Chinese clients on a regular basis and returned to the UK with a cultural shock each time.
John told us one story. That happened in a local Chinese restaurant. He now became accustomed to the fact that Chinese people wolfed down a table of food together and his food was often chosen by Chinese colleagues without his seal of approval. They were probably concerned about his amateurishness in Chinese cuisine.
Although John was no stranger to Chinese delicacy of chicken feet, pig ears, cow tails, etc., he still could not figure out why such fleshless and unpalatable food made the Chinese salivate.
That evening he overheard a dish of rarity. Pondering what it might be, a bowl of shrimp soup was served up, which made him a jolt as the shrimps were alive and wiggling inside the bowl. John was utterly gobsmacked!
Then, his Chinese colleagues nudged him to taste. He knew it would be rude not to, so managed a few sips…The next morning on Saturday, he suffered diarrhoea thanks to those live shrimps! He had to cancel the trekking trip he had been longing for.
At a dinner table, Chinese businessmen may behave a bit ‘bossy’. They order tableful dishes without any consultancy from their British partners and then force them to try. In the Chinese eyes, it shows hospitality, but may repel British guests. More often than not, the British detest most of the food.
To shun such inappropriate behaviours or embarrassment, Chinese people need to understand and respect the individuality and liberty the Britons sing praises to. The latter prefer choosing their own food and eating from their own plates. But the Chinese may argue the British should apply ‘When in Rome, do as Romans do’… To make peace and minimize a conflict, Chinese hosts could find out what food their British colleagues like or dislike and when ordering, take it on board. Likewise, the British need to appreciate Chinese culture too. Both parties in a business relationship need to learn and respect each other’s tradition and custom in order to build a long-term economic alliance for mutual prosperity.
While working in Business Development of a company, part of my duties was to instruct colleagues in Chinese business etiquette. They were often shocked by certain facts. For instance, when considering an exchange of gifts with Chinese clients, the British need to know such basic cultural taboos as listed below –
A clock can’t be considered as a gift because ‘giving a clock’ in Chinese is homophonic with burying the dead.
A green hat is banned from a gift list as a man wearing a green hat in China symbolises his partner has an affair or adultery.
Never visit a Chinese couple with pears because giving pears away can indicate you wish them to break up.
White and black colours are ill-fated whereas red is propitious.
4 is ominous as a symbol of death because the sound of 4 in Chinese is close to death, whereas 6, 8 and 9 are the lucky numbers the Chinese worship.