Anyone doing business in China will need to understand the importance of “Guanxi” and “Face.” While business people notice the differences between generations in China, understanding the deep-rooted cultural values and the way they influence business practice is still key to working in China.

Chinese Worldview

Group Orientation
Identity defined by group, family.

Harmony and face very important, though increasing directness and personal expression in younger generation when outside the home or traditional setting

Relationship Focused
Personal interaction highly valued – Guanxi (one’s network of relationships)

Patterns of rank and status observed

Tolerance for Ambiguity
Comfortable with ambiguous situations; although managerial guidance expected

Loose application of rules; requires understanding of context and relationship

Fluid Time
Scheduling and deadlines are set and expected to be observed; however requests for extensions and re-scheduling are not uncommon.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Face & avoiding shame (Mianzi)
  • Reciprocation (Guanxi)
  • Hierarchy and its attending duties
  • Identification with authority
  • Filial piety
  • Family stability, material success
  • Surface calm
  • Group stability
  • Inside-outside mentality
  • Sense of cultural superiority
  • Self-cultivation, education
  • Perseverance

Layers of Culture

  • Rural versus urban
  • Inland vs. coastal
  • Artic north and subtropical south
  • Mainland vs. islands
  • Mountain people and desert dwellers
  • Islamic west
  • Mongol north
  • Tibetan southwest
  • Generational differences


  • Developed from the teachings of Lao-tzu +/- 500 BCE
  • Emphasizes harmonious development of the self and balance.

A system of social rules established +/- 500 BCE to bring order to society.

  • Strict order of all things
  • Filial piety
  • The gentleman scholar

Chinese Communication Style

Imply/suggest what is meant. You need to read between the lines.

High Context
Background information assumed depending on nature of relationship.

Sensitivity to hierarchy/face saving very important.

Emotional displays avoided.


Guidelines for Communicating with the Chinese

  • Focus on how something is said – relational meanings often outweigh literal meanings.
  • Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures and pauses.
  • Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.
  • Understand that Chinese selves are often embedded in plural pronouns, and learn to differentiate personal opinions from those of the group.
  • Be aware that impersonal language can be used with outsiders and that insiders and outsiders are treated differently.
  • Accept that Chinese value indirect talk and that requests are often implied. However, many young people are “trying out” more direct communication which may seem surprisingly direct to outsiders expecting indirectness.
  • Recognize that definitive responses are rarely given in Chinese culture and that the word “yes” may have multiple meanings.
  • Understand that modesty is a Chinese virtue and that understating and discrediting oneself is expected.
  • Be aware that personal questions are asked frequently and that guanxi talk is a sign of care and interest.
  • Accept that Chinese tend to keep opinions to themselves and are uncomfortable in engaging in social talk with strangers.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Polite nods are common when greeting someone.  Due to restrained style, gestures are not as frequent.  Pointing is done with the entire hand, rather than one finger, as in the United States.

Prefer not to be touched, but it is accepted in public places when it’s unavoidable. Within the same gender and close friendships there can be some touching. Women may hold hands or walk arm in arm.

Minimal physical contact is preferred, However, in public spaces it is accepted that crowds force people close together leaving no personal space. In private, formal recognition of space, is the norm, particularly with the elderly, who are treated with reverence.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Inextricably linked with mianzi or face; problems must be approached delicately, without causing embarrassment.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Treating people with "ren" (forbearance, or tolerance); taking good care of subordinates, benevolent authority.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Informal, subjective; personal relationship (loyalty) may supersede performance.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Focus on group harmony & shared accomplishment; qualitative and subjective; includes social & economic concerns
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Proceed slowly, cautiously, patiently, without emotional display, seeking compromise. There is no formal end to negotiations and “settled” points can arise again much later when they are unexpected.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Protracted group process of leader-mediated compromise.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Meetings are formal; behavior is reserved; emotional display is proscribed; attention to hierarchy in the room.
Authoritarian management; upward dependence; not much tolerance for initiative.
HIRING / DISMISSAL Hiring and firing based on perceived loyalty. Does not necessarily involve performance considerations.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Development of strong personal relationships with customers is crucial. This can take a considerable amount of time.