Posts Tagged ‘International Business


“Show me a country’s etiquette, and I will show you its mind”

Here at The Image Builders we feel very strongly that Etiquette is only fully understood if studied in the context of culture. This article from China Daily newspaper supports this belief. Food for thought!

Someone once said, “A man who does not pay attention to business etiquette is a man who has not taken the time to reflect on his mission, other than to make money. A man who thinks only of etiquette is a superficial man.”

Etiquette provides an entree to the science and civilization of a country influenced greatly by its history. It is developed over time from a variety of sources, but they all reflect the culture and traditions of that nation. If you want to do good business you need to understand the context of the people you are doing business with. That must include their culture and traditions. It is part of the key to their thinking, their aims and their ways.

That is why foreigners and Chinese need to understand the etiquette of one another.

In the early days of trade with China from the early 1950s through to the early 1990s, etiquette was a part of the formal way of doing business. China always remained firmly in control of the processes inside China, where most of the business with the country was done.

This changed when businesses moved to each other’s ports into joint ventures inside China for export from China, and then for export and also for sales within China. The basis for the exchange began to alter.

But just as business dealings at one level were becoming more intimate and informal, the formalities in dealings at higher levels were maintained and indeed became more important.

In the old world, foreign trade corporations based in Beijing dealt with foreign companies and those who worked for them, but in this brave new world the reins were taken up by companies and people in the provinces. In the days of the central foreign trade organizations the processes were extremely stiff and formal, reflecting the way State leaders dealt with their foreign counterparts; under the new regime pragmatism became the key to doing business.

What became most important was who was doing business with whom rather than the elaborate processes by which they were doing it.

Nevertheless, at the higher echelons, rules of etiquette and of how things should be done continued to apply. There were the dinners, backroom meetings and letters of intent.

In most countries with developed etiquette it is customary to observe formalities before beginning a meal or a meeting. Is this all some kind of game that discriminates between those who are educated and those who are not? Is it a ridiculous caper that has no significance other than to make people feel uneasy?

Sometimes it has that appearance, that effect. Sometimes it is used that way. Sometimes we all feel uncomfortable as we clearly make a mistake in matters etiquette. But this is not the main point. These are aspects of etiquette, side effects of etiquette. For those who are serious about wanting to get to know the background to other cultures so they can create a more stable basis for their business, etiquette is part of understanding the “other side”.

Some might say that etiquette in some countries is so overdefined that it becomes almost a barrier to doing business. This may be true. In these cases etiquette has been lifted to a higher level where it is difficult to manage. That is so in some countries, and certainly I found this to be the case in China during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) where, sometimes, everything you did and said was watched and judged.

But really etiquette is a way a country expresses its culture and traditions and needs to be understood as part of developing one’s skills to manage relationships with business partners. It is not a test. If raised to that level it is a deterrent to developing relations, becoming one-sided and onerous.

Accepting your partners’ ways and forms is a reasonable thing to do, but you also need to be able to relax and not feel that you are under pressure. So listen, observe and take advice to try to get the etiquette right. Do not be difficult for the sake of it. But if you do transgress, do not worry too much. Move on.

One rationale for etiquette is that people develop ways of doing things and feel comfortable with those ways. So work with them and let them unfold and try to go along with them. The best thing to keep in mind is “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”

As you learn and observe etiquette you learn about the background of your partners.

The West has misunderstood China for a long, long time. It does not comprehend that China is a very deep and ancient civilization whose ways go back 5,000 years. Sometimes the ways China has developed can hold them back, can appear difficult for foreigners, but mostly we need to learn that China has contributed more to the science and civilization of the world than any other nation. So its etiquette is an aspect of this rich and wonderful history.

As China needs to learn about the outside world, so foreigners need to learn about China. Going through the formalities of etiquette is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad; it is simply learning about China. So if you want to do business in China then you had better learn about the ways of the Chinese.

And this is not a burden or a hard task. It is fascinating and an entry into a treasure trove of history and understandings of a deep civilization. The return of China to being a world-leading nation was what the 48 Group and my company, London Export Corporation, foresaw and promoted. We saw that China had been the largest economy in the world for 18 of the previous 20 centuries. So we have invested our time in understanding China and worked with it for the past 60 years.

The world’s difficulties in understanding China can be attributed to its not understanding China’s history and sense of itself. It is a reality now that China is a part of every country’s life, of most people’s lives and of most companies’ activities in one way or another.

So if you want to do business with China you need to take the time to understand its history, and its sense of itself, and a part of that is its etiquette. It is incumbent on China to do likewise with other histories, civilizations and ways, and other versions of etiquette.

It is a journey that is guaranteed to fascinate and bring pleasure.

(Stephen Perry, China Daily 02/03/2012 page13)

The author is president of the 48 Group Club, an independent business network promoting business relations between China and Britain. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 12 other followers