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East meets West: 4 cultural tips for dealing with Chinese businesses


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  forsome...

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 way the Chinese  works  places a  lot  of emphasis on pronunciation 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 it is pronounced closely 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’.


2.       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.


3.       Eating: something  to  chewover...

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 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, while Chinese prefer  to  fill  the  bowls  of  others  by chopsticks  to show  theirhospitality.


4.       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  showappreciation.