Professionals find appetite for etiquette

Updated: 2014-01-29 07:18

By Zhang Yuchen (China Daily)

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Lawrence Lo, founder of YLH Consulting Co, employs a unique training approach. He uses food and beverages as ways of helping the participants to understand one another. "I take Westerners to visit a local wet market, conduct a tea ceremony, or bring them to a local noodle joint to observe freshly pulled noodles because in Chinese culture many business deals are conducted around the dining table," he said.

However, there are many unspoken rules at the table in China, according to Jude De Tar, who worked in Beijing for 15 months, helping Chance Bridge Partners with their marketing and business development.

Professionals find appetite for etiquette

Lo explained: "There are clear power structures at meetings and dinners in Beijing. The most important person sits in a specific spot, and same goes for the second, third, fourth, fifth person and so on. Everyone has to ganbei (empty a glass of alcohol in one gulp) to everyone else and everyone is expected to display certain signs of respect. These types of rules guide most points of interaction."

"The way business is conducted in the West is very different to the more-personal style that's traditional in China. For example, in the way 'face' is interpreted, in the importance of personal relationships or guanxi, in better understanding the State-owned enterprise culture, and learning how to conduct oneself at Chinese banquets," he said.

"In the course of daily business, the Chinese seem to identify their objectives, highlight the person or people capable of giving them what they want, examine the important relationships that person has and then work to influence those relationships by as many means as possible.

"Often this may include giving gifts to, or doing favors for, those who may appear unconnected to the situation, but actually have some sort of influence over the decision maker(s) - it's a thorough, complex and deeply social approach that is unique to China, I believe. But both cultures have the same goal, that is: how to behave and respect each other so that there are positive outcomes in business deals," he added.

More than manners

Fernando Diez, a businessman from London, has visited China many times over a long period. Around nine months ago he decided to relocate for business reasons and since then his time has been spent attempting to attune his senses to, and learn as much as he can about, China.

"Now I think I am shocked every day," he said. "Maybe because Western culture is a little bit more globalized than Chinese culture in terms of art and film - overall culture, in fact. For me it is always a shock. "

According to Seid, cultural norms, which often become correct etiquette, over time often have their roots in being most practical, logical and factual, which sometimes then bring forth superstitions. Every cultural skill stems from a time in history when the practice was most encouraged, leading it to become accepted etiquette, she said.

To Diez those cultural norms reflect the "software" of a nation's mentality. Traveling around China as much as possible, even visiting some second-tier cities, his experience has deepened his knowledge of the country, something that's paramount to getting to grips with the culture, in his opinion.

Jeremiah Jenne, a US citizen, has lived in China for 16 years. He married a Chinese woman seven years ago and now lives as most Chinese do. However, he perceives understanding the culture as a subtle process.

"Language barriers are like the characters in Star Wars (who can only speak their own languages and are therefore unable to communicate with anyone outside their own group); respect, patience and being nice are the key factors in the learning process. Be prepared to fail every day, and keep in mind the most important thing - don't be afraid," said Jenne, managing director of IES Abroad, a cultural-exchange program that helps US students who are spending a short time overseas. "Put yourself in other people's shoes and you will see that (Chinese) business is quite relationship oriented. Try to be positive and contribute to the community," he added.

For Lo, developing an understanding of the roundabout and non-confrontational nature of Chinese culture is key to success. When Western companies want to discover the nuances and the subtleties of doing business in China, they have to be aware that things are never as straightforward or direct as in the West.

It's a proven fact that if a business professional wants to thrive in the global economy, business protocol and social etiquette training are crucial to success, he said.

For Seid, though, acknowledging the unfamiliar and learning to accept it is part and parcel of the way the world is developing. "With globalization now upon us, the latest course in life is now emerging. And it's a course we must all take because it relates to the understanding and acceptance of different cultures," she said.

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