In Search Of Harmony

Be respectful of cultural differences, use two hands to accept a business card, and watch out for the local wine – it’s 50 proof.

There were other points, large and small, made at a briefing for media and members of the Georgia business delegation who would be accompanying the governor on a trade mission to China last spring (see “The Georgia-China Connection,” page 18); but these were the ones that made the strongest impression.

Emily Fu, an Atlanta realtor and special envoy to China who works with the Department of Economic Development, and Stella Xu, assistant director of the Coles International Center at Kennesaw State, offered business etiquette tips and insights into the underlying culture.

Fu told us that the Chinese value one on one relationships. “There is a strong sense of pride in history and culture,” she said, and “courtesy to guests is a virtue.” She introduced us to the concept of “guanxi” that describes a system of elaborate relationships “promoting trust and cooperation.” The rituals and conventions put people at ease and establish harmony.

Westerners, she explained, typically have a business-first mindset: If the business transaction is successful, the personal relationship develops. The Chinese prefer to establish a personal relationship first, then do business.

During negotiations, a direct no is considered rude; better to say maybe or indicate that you’ll think about it. When Chinese nod, it signifies understanding, but not necessarily agreement.

Rank is important. So are handshakes, but they should not be too aggressive and should always be accompanied by a slight nod.

Business cards, largely a convenience for Americans, have much more significance in China; their exchange is not treated casually. Cards should be offered and accepted with two hands. When you present a card, make sure it faces the receiver so he or she can read it; when you receive one, take the time to acknowledge it.

Both Fu and Xu talked at length about toasting, an important part of Chinese business meals. It is an honored tradition, one we were urged to embrace – but with caution. We might want to toast with beer rather than the potent wine likely to be served, we were told. And it’s best to take small sips – banquets can involve many, many toasts.

Our tutors observed that those who prefer not to drink often find others to stand in for them – a sort of designated drinker system.

I emerged from the briefing determined to practice nodding, appropriate hand-shaking and graceful two-handed card exchanges, which sounded manageable. But I was a little worried about the multiple-toasting prospects. I hoped I could be polite but avoid any over-toasting that might compromise my ability to take notes and aim a camera.

Fortunately, at the banquets I attended, the toasting was actually fairly brief – no round-robin drinking bouts, just a simple exchange of sentiments and a raising of glasses. There was enough variety in the beverages – wine, beer, orange juice, soft drinks, bottled water – to quench anyone’s thirst and keep everyone appropriately clear-headed.

At the banquet in Beijing hosted by the state of Georgia, one of the Chinese guests approached our table and asked each of us very graciously – almost as if he were inviting us to dance – if we would like to exchange business cards. We all did so with pleasure.

Everything was easier and more enjoyable than anticipated. I felt well prepared for the social and business niceties, but perhaps because I was concentrating so much on those, I was a bit under-prepared for the warmth and friendliness of the people we encountered in Shanghai and Beijing. Most of those we met spoke extremely good English, although often skewed more toward British usage and idiom rather than American.

But perhaps best of all, amid the courtesy and hospitality – there was good humor that crossed all cultural lines.

Case in point: At a luncheon at Beijing’s Tsingua University, the delegation was joined by a group of students, happy to make our acquaintance. As the Georgians were preparing to leave, there were a few announcements. When they were over, a young man I had met sought me out to ask a question. He was puzzled. He had heard the English announcement directing guests to the restrooms. In America, he wanted to know, was a restroom something besides a place to rest?

Yes, I told him. And when I explained what it was, we both had a good laugh.

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