By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
I spent the last half of my 40-year career with Marriott International traveling the globe as president and managing director of the company’s offshore lodging division. During those years, I visited China at least 5 times a year. I was impressed, at the time, to find the nature of the Chinese people was always welcoming and hospitable. I also learned that their culture and value system was vastly different from ours.
Some of you may be wondering why you should care about this. You should because, in the not too distant future, vast numbers of Chinese visitors will very likely be coming to a town near you and they will have a huge impact on the world around you. Consider this: China’s tourists today are the largest group of travelers of any country. Last year, more than 100mn Chinese people from the mainland traveled abroad, nearly a million of them came to California. By the end of this decade, this number is expected to double. So, it makes a lot of sense to begin preparing the red carpet to ensure these visitors have an enjoyable experience in our communities.
Not only are these folks big-time travelers, but they also have enormous purchasing power. Last year, they overtook the US and Germany as the world’s biggest travel spenders by forking out more than $100bn. And the volume of their travel and the amount they spend when on the road are growing annually by double digits.
If you’re wondering why the Chinese people have suddenly begun traveling in such huge volumes, it’s because over the past 30 years China has transformed itself from a basically agrarian society into a global economic powerhouse. This has given birth to its rapidly expanding middle class. Coupled with the recent easing of the Chinese mainlander’s ability to get visas to visit other countries, the floodgates have opened wide. There’s now a huge pent-up demand in Chinese society to see the world. In fact, about 60% of today’s Chinese tourists are traveling abroad for the first time.
But, make no mistake about it. These are sophisticated tourists. They’re not much interested in seeing how many famous sites they can cram into a 14-day itinerary. They pay a lot of attention to the quality of their travel experience and they do their homework on the Internet before leaving home. More than 600 million Chinese citizens are Internet users, including the more than 53mn who logged on for the first time last year.
What makes the Chinese people culturally different from ours? Basically, their culture is rooted in the three pillars of Group Harmony, Respectful Communications and Relationships and Networks. These pillars date back several millennia and are based in Confucianism—a humanistic, ethical and philosophical belief system that values ethical conduct and the practical order of things.
As a result, unlike western cultures that put a lot of emphasis on “me, mine, my company, my house” and so forth, Chinese people talk in collective terms such as “us, we and our partnership.” So, when you interact with our Chinese guests, or try to forge a relationship avoid a “us versus you” posture. Speak with a Chinese person as though he or she is a partner, even if the relationship is just starting.
Respect, or what is sometimes referred to as Face, is almost everything to a Chinese person. And communication is one interaction where respect is shown. Early on, Chinese youngsters are taught to be humble and courteous. Thus, when a Chinese guest, customer or potential business partner doesn’t overly respond to your compliments, he or she inwardly very much appreciates them, but doesn’t overtly show his or her appreciation. On the other hand, when they say that one of your requests or ideas is “under consideration” or “being discussed,” indirectly this may be their polite way of saying “no.”
Relationship is EVERYTHING to a Chinese person and it is not forged overnight. Thus, if you want to do some serious business with someone from China, start with building the relationship first.
Here are some basic social tips to help you get started.
Take the long view in all your dealings with our Chinese visitors—they appreciate patience and the long-term goal.
Gift Exchanges – Everyone likes to receive gifts and none more so than the Chinese. But there’s a strict protocol to getting the gift-exchange right. Not only is the choice of the gift important, but so is how you wrap it, how you present it and to whom. When deciding on what to give, be thoughtful and considerate and avoid giving something over the top or overly lavish because it could be considered a bribe. Keep in mind that it’s the thoughtfulness behind the gift that’s paramount, not necessarily the cost. Plan to give the most senior person present the most expensive gift and never give the same gift to persons of different rank. And if you’re given a gift, don’t open it immediately.
Titles – As a general rule, refer to your Chinese guests by their professional titles such as Professor Wong, President Wu, Doctor So or Manager Chou or at the very least Mr. or Mrs. And, omit any defining words such as “deputy” or “assistant.”
Business Cards – Exchanging business cards is a big deal and there are some dos and don’ts associated with the exchange. Chinese people normally use both hands to present or receive the card to show respect. All cards should be carefully read. Never put the card into your back pocket or leave it on the table and never write on it.
Body Language – For Chinese people, overly exuberant smiles, using your index finger to show direction, excessive body language and departing before your guests do are all considered disrespectful.
Tipping – When dining out, one participant pays the bill for the table to show generosity and friendship; the western custom of “going Dutch” is frowned upon.
You’ll find no more appreciative guests than those from the mainland of China. Let’s work together to ensure that the hospitality we extend and the guest experience we deliver is positive and leaves a lasting impression that our country is a great place to visit and maybe to invest in.