Arranging and having meetings with Chinese counterparts can be a different process than you might see out West. The process is smoother if you already have a relationship with the people beforehand. If they aren’t familiar with you or your company, it is best to provide as much background information as possible. This allows them to decide whether to have the meeting as well as who should take part.
This is important, since it means the proper decision makers can attend. Unlike Western meetings, it is in your interest to bring up the subject of the meeting and all issues to be discussed beforehand, so that no surprises are brought up during the meeting. Once again, this allows the other party to prepare their own views in advance of the meeting itself. Not following this protocol may result in your proposals being received with silence, as time would then be needed to consider them in private.
You may find that Chinese meetings are often scheduled at the last minute. Even where a meeting is proposed by either side well in advance of a particular date, the details are still not usually confirmed until just before the meeting. This is done to avoid last minute changes or cancellations.
Once the meeting begins, it is best to arrive on time – not too early and certainly not too late. If you do end up late, be sure to apologize profusely to avoid the impression that there was any intent in your tardiness.
When entering a meeting room, it is common for Chinese delegates to follow a rank order with the highest ranking official entering first (especially for meetings involving government officials). Since one on one meetings are usually rare, there may be an entourage of participants. Assume that those not introduced are not part of the decision process, but just present as witnesses or assistants.
Like in Western meetings, it is wise to engage in some small talk in the beginning to build up trust, especially when the parties don’t know each other well. The Chinese prefer to do business with those they know, so it is worthwhile to cultivate this aspect first. You may notice that a few key individuals have been assigned to participate in the meeting, while the rest usually remain silent for the majority of the meeting.
After the initial small talk, the host of the meeting will usually welcome the invitees and either present the topic at hand or invite the proposer of the meeting to do so.
The Chinese usually prefer to be on the defensive or receiving side of matters. This allows them to combine their preparation of the meeting beforehand, with time to react to the proposals brought forward by the other party.
During the meeting, it is common for Chinese to use grunts or nods as signs of acknowledgment of what is being said during the meeting. Don’t mistake this for acceptance, as it is just a tacid acknowledgment and doesn’t necessarily suggest agreement.
Unlike normal conversations, the dialogs in meetings tend to be more structured with each side taking turns. As a result, it is common to let the other party do the talking without interrupting until it is your turn, at which point you can go through their points one by one. During this portion, expect them to take detailed notes that may be referred to on later dates or shared with other parties who may have not attended the meeting.
Like in all interactions with Chinese people, it is of crucial importance never to put them on the spot or allow them to lose face.
Towards the end of the meeting, it is best to summarize your understanding of the situation to make sure both parties are clear where things stand. At this point, you can set up a future meeting. The Chinese party’s response here, will let you gauge their interest in continuing things.
Note: For more detailed descriptions of the points in this article, read “Chinese Business Etiquette” by Scott D. Seligman.