East Meets West: 4 Cultural Tips for Dealing with Chinese Businesses

Racepoint Global

Written by Edwina Chung and Mark Fowler 

With China well established as the world’s second-largest economy, communicating with Chinese businesses and consumers has become critical to global commercial success. Communicating successfully with China isn’t just about learning the language. But like the old cliché goes, it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

Knowing the cultural nuances and the idiosyncrasies between the East and West – what not to say as much as what you should say – that will help you achieve your goals in China, whether it’s dinner with a potential business partner or advertising to consumers.

With that in mind, here are four tips to remember to keep your communications on track.

  1. Numbers: lucky for some…

Don’t panic if you can’t find any floors with the digit ‘4’ in them in a hotel; as you probably know if you’re reading this, the number four is considered unlucky. For the same reason, brands avoid using the number four in their name and product ranges often skip from 3 to 5. The reasoning behind this is actually quite interesting; the Chinese place a lot of emphasis on pronunciation, and since ‘four’ sounds similar to that of the Chinese word for ‘death’, it’s unsurprisingly considered taboo. By the same merit though, other numbers are considered lucky – such as eight because the pronunciation is similar to the word for ‘prosperity’. And the number 13? Well, it might fill some in the West with the same sense of unease as a black cat crossing their path but not so in China where it sounds similar to the word for ‘birth.’

  1. Colour: stay in the lines…

What’s your favourite colour? If you’re in China there’s a good chance it’s red. Due to its association with joy and prosperity, red is widely used in China for holidays and festivals, as well as by the government. Gold remains popular for similar reasons. The affection for tasteful monochrome that many of us have in the West is far less the case in China where black and white are closely associated with mourning. Electric blue suffers from a similar association due to its use at funerals. Green, which is considered a symbol of freshness in the UK and wealth in the US brings to mind quite a different image in China – that of plummeting stocks. Be careful when picking which colours you use for your branding and where you use them.

  1. Eating: something to chew over…

There’s an old Chinese saying: “People are iron. Rich is steel. You will feel like crap without a meal.” It’s fair to say food is an essential part of daily life for the Chinese. Have you ever sat down for a meal with a group of Chinese people and felt a bit confused as they openly share food across the dining table? Sharing food is like sharing ‘grace’ and where westerners usually invite guests to choose their favourite food on the table, the Chinese prefer to place food in guest’s bowls with chopsticks to show their hospitality.

  1. Gifts: it’s (not just) the thought that counts…

To end on some good news; even numbers are seen as lucky in Chinese culture and so people prefer sending in pairs. For example, two bottles of wine might be offered as a gift rather than one. The rationale here – much like with our Chinese dinner hosts – is a show of generosity.  Another subtle difference is that when receiving gifts, Chinese will tend to put these aside to open later, to avoid being seen as greedy, where we in the US and Europe will regularly open a gift as they receive to show appreciation.