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Socialize with a purpose when doing business with Chinese

The importance of knowing how, why and when to socialize while doing business in China can help any budding business or established tradition flourish when working abroad.

Chinese Business Culture

Chinese Business Culture

Socializing: a critical part of business

We all know that socializing is part and parcel of doing business. From dinner and drinks after important meetings to happy hours for employee motivation, socializing (or bonding outside of office hours) is crucial for solidifying any business relationship. Through this process of business socialization, we learn what norms and values we are expected to exhibit. My mentor even goes so far as to suggest that one should dine with all potential employees to get a better sense of the person with whom they’ll be working.

Getting to know the culture

When doing business abroad, it is of the utmost importance to be “on-boarded” with the local and corporate culture you’ll be engaging with. In most cases, time is of the essence, so socializing is necessary. I find engaging with clients abroad by socializing outside of office hours, I tell them much more about me, our potential business relationship, and company than any presentation or white paper could.

This reason is two-fold. On one hand, your foreign hosts recognize that you have just spent a great deal of effort and time traveling overseas to do business and want to be as hospitable as possible. On the other hand, becoming “fast friends” gives your potential business partners a glimpse into the personalities (vices and all) they’ll be working with as well. Socializing in this manner lessens the learning curve.

How to fit in: stay flexible

Most foreign hosts will want to have at least one main social event (banquet, party, outing, etc) and possibly a smaller social event (happy hour, dinner, reception, etc). When visiting their home country, keep your schedule flexible after the first day or two. In China, hosts normally give you a couple days of breathing room to relax after the long travel.

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But by the third day, you’re expected to be up and running! The smaller social event may be held in the middle of your stay and the larger event toward the end of your trip. Remember to reserve some energy for these events, as you’ll be expected to participate throughout.

Business and personal socializing are different

Business socializing is definitely more of an art than a science. It must be done gracefully and graciously. While the old adage “be yourself” is true in this case, I often suggest being a more conscientious and aware you. Keep the purpose of the socializing in the foreground of your mind. The Chinese are friendly to a fault and as such it is easy for business socializing to quickly become fraternizing in the blink of an eye.

With courtesy in mind, a good Chinese host will never let your glass be empty, your belly be hungry or your hand be cigarette-less (if you smoke). With this in mind, moderation can be hard to maintain for the sake of politeness. All too often I have seen a Westerner at a banquet in China accept an offered drink or cigarette while saying “I’ll just have one.”

Minutes later, another is being offered. To say no directly would be offensive, so the unsuspecting foreigner is unintentionally causing their host to lose face. The same thing happens with food and drink. Leave a bit of each as to not offend your host. Once your plate or glass is empty, it will quickly be refilled.


  • Use social events to glean as much information as you can.
  • Be on your Ps and Qs as you are being watched, but don’t exude a fake personality.
  • Rest up as soon as you land, if possible, and ask your host for an event schedule.

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Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

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