How Not to Act Like a Foreigner in Chinese Business: Advanced Vocab and Cultural Tips
China could be the world’s largest economy by 2030.
That’s according to the International Monetary Fund. While it hasn’t happened yet and China’s economic growth has slowed to a “modest” 6.5% per year, the country’s business scene is still roaring ahead.
This means that learning advanced business Chinese may be one of the wisest investments you’ll ever make!
This post will cover some useful business phrases and vocabulary, as well as some tips on Chinese culture and etiquette. It assumes that you already have a basic level of Mandarin Chinese—if you’re a complete beginner, add this post to your reading list and come back to it in a few months.
Business Culture in China: Guān xì and Miàn zi
Before we get into the specific phrases, let me introduce you to two concepts that are crucial for you to be familiar with before you start doing business in China: 关系 (guān xì) and 面子 (miàn zi).
关系 (guān xì) can be loosely translated to “relationship,” though its meaning is broad and complex. Basically, it’s networking on steroids. People will talk about having “good guān xì” with various people or organizations.
It pays to study the intricacies of guān xì, including the delicate exchange of gifts and favors, if you’re committed to a long-term business career in China. For now, just familiarize yourself with the word get a sense of its meaning, because you’re going to be hearing it all the time!
面子 (miàn zi), literally meaning “face,” is an individual’s image or prestige. Miàn zi and guān xì are closely related. You can give “face” to someone by complimenting them and making it seem as if you trust them and have respect for them. You can make somebody lose face by criticizing them in public. Losing face is considered a minor tragedy in China, so be mindful of how your actions and statements could affect how someone is perceived by their colleagues.
Keep your cool at all times—nothing is going to make you lose your own face faster than becoming a stereotypical shouting 老外 (lǎo wài) — foreigner!
Anxious about fitting in or making a good impression? As we’ll discuss below, mistakes are okay and there are several ways you can apologize and move past them. But to boost your confidence, FluentU is an incredible tool.
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Advanced Business Chinese to Build Relationships and Impress Your Hosts
Beyond Nihao: Greetings and Phrases for When You Arrive
Chances are, if you’re reading this, then you’re not from China! Which means that the appropriate vocabulary for when you arrive centers around the journey. Discussing the trip is a natural way to open the conversation, establish rapport and begin the process of building relationships. Remember as they say, “guān xì guān xì!”
Did You Have a Hard Journey?
A question you’re likely to be asked on arrival is:
路上辛苦了吗? (lù shàng xīn kǔ le ma?) — Did you have a hard journey?
A natural way to answer is either:
有一点 (yǒu yī diǎn) — Yes, a little
不辛苦,没事 (bù xīn kǔ, méi shì) — No, not hard, it was nothing
Our Meeting is Fortunate
Other useful phrases for a first business meeting express optimism about the prospects for your collaboration, and of course demonstrate your respect for your host. Remember miàn zi!
幸会幸会. (xìng huì xìng huì.) — It is fortunate that we meet.
久仰大名. (jiǔ yǎng dà míng.) — This phrase could roughly translate as “I’ve heard a lot about you!” Use it when you greet the most high-ranking member of the Chinese company. It shows respect and gives face.
Rituals of Exchange with New Business Connections
Business Card Etiquette
In the West, business cards are kind of throwaway items. We go out to a networking event and come home with dozens, most of which we never look at again. As you may be starting to realize by now, in China, things are different. Someone’s business card is, in many ways, a reflection of their self. How you treat their business card represents how you think of them.
When you receive a business card, be sure to take it with both hands and make a show of looking at it carefully and examining it on both sides. Then, put it away deliberately in your wallet or somewhere respectful—don’t shove it in your back pocket! This show of deference will be noticed and appreciated by your hosts.
Make sure you bring plenty of business cards with you on your journey, as the ritual of exchange will be repeated often! As you’ll come to realize, the giving and receiving of 名片 (míng piàn) — business cards is about far more than just swapping contact information. It formalizes and acknowledges 第一次见面 (dì yī cì jiàn miàn) — the first meeting.
The exchange of 礼物 (lǐ wù) — gifts is an established part of the dance of guān xì and a good way to win favor and show respect. Chances are, you’ll come home with a few new possessions, so you may feel embarrassed if you show up empty handed!
To make sure you do it right, there are a few interesting cultural points worth mentioning:
Receiving a gift is much like receiving a business card. Look at the package with interest and treat the object with respect. Unlike in the west, if the gift is wrapped you aren’t expected to unwrap it then and there. Save the surprise for when you get home.
When giving a gift, you can say 我送你这个礼物 (wǒ sòng nǐ zhè ge lǐ wù) — I give you this gift, which makes it clear that you’re giving and not just showing/borrowing the object.
Be sure to be aware of the cultural associations of what you’re giving. You don’t need to be paranoid about this—leeway is normally given to foreigners—but a bit of research will pay off.
Flowers are popular in the west, but in China are associated with funerals. Clocks and watches also symbolize death, so leave that second Rolex at home! If you’re going in for wrapping paper, red is a winning color as it’s associated with wealth and success.
Trinkets from your home that are hard to find abroad will also go down well—something interesting that they can show to their family and colleagues. I’m from New Zealand, so for me toy Kiwi birds would make a good choice.
Vocabulary and Phrases for Getting Down to Business
Okay, the niceties are over, so let’s get down to business!
Business is, of course, a huge subject, and there’s no way one post can give you all of the vocabulary you need to know. In this section, we’ll just look at a handful of essentials and show you how to bring it all together in a meaningful phrase. You can then add in the appropriate keywords depending on your specific industry and situation.
For specialized business vocabulary, check out this Chinese vocabulary list for consultants and this list of job titles and positions.
Top Business Keywords to Memorize
合同 (hé tóng) — Contract (more on this soon)
期限 (qī xiàn) — Deadline
工资 (gōng zī) — Wages
材料 (cái liào) — Material
价格 (jià gé) — Price
交货 (jiāo huò) — Delivery
付款 (fù kuǎn) — Payment
One of the beautiful things about learning Mandarin Chinese is that, unlike many European languages, keywords can be substituted like bricks in a wall, which means learning a few constructions and the appropriate vocabulary is often all you need for specific situations.
Let’s look at how some of the above terms can work in a sentence:
材料价格不合适. (cái liào jià gé bù hé shì.) — The material price is not suitable.
You can replace 材料价格 (cái liào jià gé) — material price with anything you like, for example: 期限不合适. (qī xiàn bù hé shì.) — The deadline is not suitable.
Now change the negative into a positive. Just remove the 不 (bù) — no. For example: 工资合适. (gōng zī hé shì.) — The wages are okay.
Discussing a Contract and the Right Way to Raise Objections
As with anywhere else in the world, when you reach a deal, you’re going to want it set in stone with a contract. While I’m not qualified to cover any aspects of the legal writing, there are a few useful Mandarin Chinese grammar structures that’ll serve you well if you need to raise objections or zero in on a particular point at any stage of the conversation.
Like other Asian cultures, China tends to favor a less direct and confrontational approach to raising objections than places like the U.S. As you’ve learned above, helping your counterpart to 保住面子 (bǎo zhù miàn zi) — save face is essential if you want to succeed in the long term.
Let’s explore this in detail with an example concerning a 合同 (hé tóng) — contract.
Your Chinese counterpart asks you if you’ve seen the contract, and if you have any questions:
合同你看过了吗?有没有问题? (hé tóng nǐ kàn guò le ma? Yǒu méi yǒu wèn tí?) — Have you read the contract? Are there any problems?
You have a problem with the 价格 (jià gé) — price. You could simply state, “I have a problem with the price,” but this direct approach could be interpreted as confrontational. Instead, you can choose to formulate your sentence in such a way that emphasizes that everything apart from the price is fine.
除了价格以外其他的都没问题. (chú le jià gé yǐ wài qí tā de dōu méi wèn tí.) — Apart from the price, everything else is fine.
As we learned above, you can substitute the keyword “price” with any other appropriate term to politely draw attention to the aspect that you want to discuss. For example:
除了期限以外其他的都没问题. (chú le qī xiàn yǐ wài qí tā de dōu méi wèn tí.) — Apart from the deadline, everything else is fine.
Trip up? How to Elegantly Apologize Without Losing Face
Make a mistake? Don’t worry about it! As a visitor in a foreign land, you’re not expected to be perfect. The fact that you’re clearly going the extra mile and making the effort in Chinese will be noted and appreciated.
If you accidentally or unthinkingly cause someone to 丢脸 (diū liǎn) — lose face, or trip up in another way, a simple apology can go a long way toward getting you back on firm ground.
There are many ways to apologize in Chinese and their English translations can seem quite drastic. The closest English equivalent to “I’m sorry” that’s useful in most situations is 对不起 (duì bù qǐ). Literally, it means “I cannot face you.”
Another useful, somewhat lighter expression is 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si), which is used to express embarrassment—if you mistake someone’s name or make a language faux pas, then 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) is probably the safest bet.
The most formal option for an apology—which is typically used in written Chinese—is 抱歉 (bào qiàn). Bào qiàn is a more heavy-duty expression than duì bù qǐ or bù hǎo yì si. Unlike the other two, it’s not something that you would use if you bumped into someone in the subway or spilled your drink.
If you’re on the receiving end of an apology, you can politely brush it aside with 没关系 (méi guān xì) — it’s okay/no problem!
Celebration! The Essential Chinese Art of the Toast
No affair in China is complete without a sumptuous 宴会 (yàn huì) — banquet, accompanied by an unhealthy number of toasts with China’s favorite spirit, the sorghum-based 白酒 (bái jiǔ). Sometimes misleadingly translated as “white wine,” 白酒 (bái jiǔ) is typically as powerful as vodka, with a strong, pungent flavor that a lot of us foreigners struggle with.
Most Chinese expats have a few 白酒 (bái jiǔ) war stories. The experience of toast after toast has been described as an alcoholic knife fight! While it’s not absolutely essential to participate in a toast, if the offer is made, you’d be wise to accept—with caution!
The phrase you’ll hear most often is 干杯 (gān bēi). It’s used as we would use the word “cheers” in English, but literally means “dry glass.” Be mindful, because this is often taken literally!
As in English, it’s normal to drink to health and success. The simplest formula is: 为 (wèi) — for, followed by what you’re drinking to, followed by an enthusiastic gān bēi!
为更好的未来干杯. (wèi gèng hǎo de wèi lái gān bēi.) — Cheers to a better future!
为合作成功干杯. (wèi hé zuò chéng gōng gān bēi.) — Cheers to our successful cooperation!
If you’ve had a few too many already and the long phrases are falling off your tongue, the simple 理解万岁 (lǐ jiě wàn suì) — long live our understanding is a good fallback.
An interesting quirk of the toast in China is that it’s respectful to chink glasses lower down. The lower on the other person’s glass you clink, the more face you give them. This can result in some hilarious situations when you chase each other’s glasses from high over your shoulder to right down to the table, with each of you humbly vying for the lower spot!
Time to Leave? How to Bid Farewell for the Journey Home
With your work done, a bag full of souvenirs and a cracking bái jiǔ hangover, it’s time to head back home. As with your arrival, you want to go beyond the simple 再见 (zài jiàn) — goodbye and leave your Chinese hosts with a good feeling about your stay.
It’s appropriate to express regret that your trip has come to an end and optimism that you’ll meet again and your cooperation will continue.
Earlier in this post we looked at three ways to apologize: 对不起 (duì bù qǐ), 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) and 抱歉 (bào qiàn). Believe it or not, there’s yet another phrase you can use: 遗憾 (yí hàn). This one is used to express regret, passively placing the blame for something unfortunate on luck/circumstances. It’s a nice way to express that you unfortunately have to go home, but you really don’t want to:
很遗憾 我明天需要回美国. (hěn yí hàn wǒ míng tiān xū yào huí měi guo.) — I regret that I have to return to America tomorrow.
Another phrase that has a similar effect is 我不得不说再见了. (wǒ bù dé bù shuō zài jiàn le.) — I have to say goodbye. Like yí hàn, it connotes that the decision to leave is out of your hands. You don’t want to go, but you simply have to!
So that’s that! I hope that the points and phrases above will give you a leg up over the competition, endear you to your hosts and take the edge off the culture shock. Enjoy the adventure! Many thanks to the Chinese instructor Ding Yi of Hutong School for assistance with some of the example phrases above—any errors are my own.