Brush up on your Chinese business etiquette

We get re-educated in Chinese manners at Institute Sarita

Can bad manners cost you in China? ‘Of course’, says the founder of Beijing’s finishing school Institute Sarita, Sara Jane Ho. ‘Chinese society, as a whole, is very sensitive to minor things. We notice a lot more,’ she explains.


Dubbed Beijing’s ‘Miss Manners’, the 29-year-old Hong Kong native has spent almost three years teaching Chinese people Western etiquette and is now turning the tables, offering training for expats who want to brush up on their Chinese manners.


During a full-day session at Ho’s Sanlitun Soho school, our class of 20, which includes members of AmCham China and some of Beijing’s top execs in law, oil and gas, engineering and public relations, are schooled on just about everything you need to know about how to conduct yourself – from handing out and receiving business cards to nailing down a KTV song to belt out on demand.


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‘My KTV song is “Flying Without Wings” by Westlife,’ Irish expat Noel Finneran admits with a laugh. Finneran, a newbie to China, flew in from Jilin to attend the class, and says the Chinese adore the Irish boy band. ‘It’s an easy song to please everyone,’ he says.


Sitting at the front of the class, Ho runs through the key concepts of the day – guanxi (networking), mianzi (face), and li (etiquette). She’s poised, elegant and speaks English with a British flair. Simply put, she’s China’s answer to Martha Stewart. A competitive horse rider, Ho is at the stables in Shunyi no later than 6.30am, and is in the office by 9am teaching locals and foreigners the not-so-lost art of etiquette. By night she hosts parties and dinners.


‘I don’t sleep much,’ she admits as she tells us about her new Shanghai etiquette school that opened in May. Ho launched Institute Sarita after graduating from Harvard with an MBA. She first thought about opening a finishing school after Chinese friends kept asking what she learned from her intensive summer training at Swiss finishing school Institut Villa Pierrefeu. So the next step was her own course. Growing up in five different countries and speaking five different languages, Ho is observant of cultural differences and nuances. ‘My mother always told me “live like a local”,’ says Ho.


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In China, patience is a virtue – for everything. To show how much they care, Chinese people will speak slowly, pausing a lot to show they’re giving thought to what they’re saying and again before replying. In the West, silence can be seen as rude, as if you’re not listening or paying attention to the other person. But in China, thinking about what you say, and taking the time to say it, is both a negotiation tactic and a sign of respect, says Ho.


‘The American way of business is “don’t waste my time”, which is difficult to drop for some expats,’ says Ho, adding how a former student damaged business relations with a local partner after pushing them too hard with their ‘American’ ways. ‘It took them six months to repair the relationship,’ says Ho. How do you repair broken relations? ‘A lot of work.’


She suggests sending third-party connections to investigate the situation. You can also use third parties to baifang (pay your respects) to prospective clients, maintain existing relations, repair damage and even deliver bad news.


‘You have to go to their territory, meaning their workplace or home, depending how close you are,’ explains Ho. Remember to never arrive empty handed. ‘Tea is usually a very good gift, or something fun from your home country. If you’re from Belgium, bring them Belgian chocolate. Chinese people do love to eat.’


Dutch expat and course attendant John Bruijnooge says he will apply what he learned in class. ‘[Baifang is] a concept that I’ve been part of that I didn’t realise,’ he says, going on to say that he has a lot of reciprocating to do.


China has a long history of etiquette, stemming all the way back to Confucius. ‘Just 30 years ago, China was an incipient basket case. There was a shortage of electricity, people were going hungry and fighting to get to the front of the food ration line – nobody was thinking about personal space. Developing countries have a developing-country mentality: survival,’ says Ho. Now, as China rises and its citizens are uplifted from poverty, society can think about respect for others, confidence and morality, she says.


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Take a look at our top tips to help build and keep good guanxi in the work place.


Institute Sarita’s full-day Chinese business etiquette class, including lunch, is 2,500RMB. For more information, and to check out Ho’s online course, priced 300RMB, go to institutesarita.com.

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