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China is opening its doors to foreign companies, and those that understand Chinese culture and the scope of the Chinese market will have an edge over competitors. Here are some cultural conventions to give foreigners an advantage when exporting to China:

Small talk is critical to relationship building. Taking the time to make conversation will reap dividends; the Chinese enjoy making a connection before closing a deal.

Be aware of the cultural differences using ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Instead of ‘no’, give non-committal answers such as ‘perhaps’ because the Chinese shun direct answers that could upset the other party. ‘Yes’ is often used to indicate understanding, rather than assent or agreement.

Be clear in your communication. The Chinese value a carefully crafted message placed in context through the prudent use of words, gestures and facial expressions. When selecting a translator, meet in advance so they can learn your accent and become familiar with any technical or non-familiar terms.

Business cards are of great significance. The exchange of business cards is an important formality. Present and receive a business card with both hands, taking care to look at the person’s title, and place the card on the table in front of you. It’s advisable to have your name and title translated.

Giving and receiving gifts is a custom of business dealings. Present gifts in private to avoid the perception of bribery.

Smiling is a beneficial means of communication in China. However, be aware that Chinese people sometimes smile as a defence mechanism to cover nervousness or embarrassment. Avoid steady eye contact, as this can be perceived as a challenge.

One of the biggest mistakes made by foreign companies attempting to prosper in China is to perceive the mainland as a homogenous market. The broad demographics in this large and diverse nation mean that there are vastly different attitudes and behaviours across China’s citizenry. Foreign companies that understand that will be well equipped to deal with the complexities of doing business in this rapidly changing country.

—Noel McNamara is head of commercial banking at HSBC Bank Australia

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