Unless you have a perfect mastery of Chinese language, symbolism, and social nuances (and who even has that of their own country, anyway?), consider picking up a copy of Anne-Laure Monfret’s Saving Face in China, a practical book aimed at aiding you in making a decent impression on your Chinese business contacts.
Monfret is a French management and HR specialist who spent eight years in China. Her book addresses the trickiest areas of Chinese culture through thoughtful explanations and first-hand stories. As she illustrates, it takes a whole lot more than common courtesy to navigate Chinese business meals, deals, and conflicts, all of which are fraught with complex hierarchies and expectations. Alternating between big-picture concepts (e.g., western versus Chinese notions of “efficiency”) and concrete do’s and don’ts (do give a nice bottle of cognac as a gift, but never, ever give a clock), the book is a crash course in avoiding major social gaffes.
Monfret concedes (and I tend to agree) that you are not going to torpedo a big business deal by, say, declining a second helping of chicken feet because most Chinese give westerners sufficient cultural wiggle room. That being said, your causing a loss of “face” can hurt you and your business venture.
Most English speakers have a general grasp of what it means to “lose face” and westerners certainly value their egos and reputations. But for the Chinese, Monfret emphasizes that causing someone to lose face is easier and more serious than most westerners realize. Perhaps most concerning is how difficult it is to restore face once the damage is done—if you want any shot at making amends, you had better use the right variant of the Chinese word for “sorry” and follow the other tips Monfret sets forth in her section on apologies. There is no doubt that knowing China’s cultural customs can aid you in doing business in China and Saving Face in China makes for a quick and enjoyable way to get there.
Saving Face acknowledges the oddness of Chinese social customs without belittling Chinese culture, focusing instead on the historical and psychological context of these traditions. Embracing both the absurdity and the dead-seriousness of the Chinese concept of “face,” Monfret presents a great deal of information in a straightforward, guidebook-like style that’s perfectly suited for a casual in-flight read. My only beef with the book was that it read as though it had not been reviwed by a native-speaking English editor. As a French major who lived two years in France (during 4th grade and my junior year in college), I mention this as partial revenge.