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'Oh my, you’ve put on weight!' and other comments you might hear when doing business in China

Want to do business in China? First, Canadian travellers need to learn the basics of how business is conducted there. These tips will help you get the deal done.

Exchanging business cards is a delicate ritual. Take double the amount of business cards that you think you need, and pay attention when you give and receive. Business is all about people, and in China and many parts of Asia, a person's cards are a representation of their company, their role and themselves – respect it. This is the first step in what you hope will be a fruitful relationship. Thoughtfully receive the card with both hands, take a moment to read it and check if there is something (hopefully an English translation!) on the back. You will also give your business card with two hands. Take a moment to observe how they treat your card.

Business discussions are not linear. One of my favourite China analogies is that business moves forward the same way that traffic inches forward on an impossibly crowded road…the painted lines are merely guidelines. A little to the left, a touch to the right, but always moving forward is the goal. Business discussions will come up at breakfast, you'll have a meeting in the car on your way to the Chinese opera and the questions will keep coming. This also means that you might learn at a meeting that your contact's daughter is studying in the U.S. and also learn the history of the local area. This is also how you too need to operate to meet your goals. It's not a straight line, but more of an adventure course in which persistence pays off.

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Expect blunt comments and questions. Don't be shocked to hear zingers like, "Oh, my, you've put on weight!" And on occasions when people are short on time, for example at a trade show, don't be surprised if the question, "Where are you from?" leads straight into, "How much?" followed by, "What's the discount if I order a container?" Take a breath, give a price range and suggest sitting down to discuss.

Negotiations never seem to end. Signing a contract may merely be entering into an agreement to negotiate. Negotiations don't seem to end in China, so always be prepared for new requests and alternate arrangements. Don't divert your focus or stop communicating with your contacts just because the contract is signed.

Drink to seal the deal. You've been invited to dinner and your hosts have brought their favourite Chinese liquor – a good sign for business, but not for your liver. Baijiu (white alcohol) must never be confused with white wine (how it can sometimes be translated), as the alcohol level runs from 40 to 60 per cent and its aroma can linger with you for days. When paired with the Chinese drinking toast of gan bei (literally, dry glass), this can be the most excruciating aspect of business in China. There are few successful methods to avoid this initiation ritual. My recommendation – drink beer (or Canadian wine).

Once you get the hang of how business is done in China, you'll be able to soak up the wonderful variations in culture inside the country, and help the locals understand a few odd things about visiting Westerners, such as why they drink such cold water and eat so many uncooked vegetables.

Allison Boulton is based in Vancouver and works with companies to grow their international sales and decipher global culture. She recently spent three years living in China, working to introduce North American wines to the Chinese market. 

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