IETF 79 - Chinese Culture & Etiquette Overview

Table of Contents

Cultural Concepts

Every culture has its own core concepts, and China is no exception. Below are just a couple of them.

Connections (Guanxi)
It can loosely be compared with the idea of networking in the west but usually goes much further in terms of developing and nurturing the relationship through social exchanges and favors, which must be repaid at greater value in time. Essentially this means who you know and what these people believe their obligations are to you.

Face (Mianzi)
Losing face, saving face and giving face is very important and should be taken into consideration at all times. Loosing your temper, confronting someone, putting someone on the spot, arrogant behavior, or failing to accord proper respect can cause a loss of face. Respect that this is important to the Chinese.


  • Chinese prefer to be formally introduced to someone new. This applies to both Chinese and foreigners. In addition, the Chinese prefer to do business with people they know or at least known through an intermediary, so a local contact can be very helpful.
  • Do not be surprised if you are applauded. It is polite to applaud back. The Chinese custom is to use applause as a way of greeting as well as to show approval.
  • Always stand up when being introduced and remain standing throughout the introductions.
  • When being introduced to Chinese, the accepted form of greeting is the handshake, even among Chinese. Chinese may also nod or slightly bow. The Chinese bow from the shoulders rather than the waist.

Business Card Presentation and Exchange

  • Use both hands when presenting business cards and be sure the writing faces the person to whom you are presenting your card.
  • Cards should also be received with both hands. Do not immediately put the card in a pocket or bag; this is considered rude. Never put a card in your back pants pocket, as this would be considered equivalent to sitting on someone's face.
  • Follow with "I am pleased to meet you/how are you?" (Ni hao in Chinese.)
  • When seated, place cards on the table. This shows respect and is also an excellent way to remember names.
  • Never "deal out" your cards across the table like a game of cards; this is very rude.


  • The Chinese will state their family (last) name first, followed by the given name (may be one or two syllables). For example, Liu Jianguo, in Chinese would be Mr. Jianguo Liu using the Western style of address. Be prepared for this inversion of your own name (a hotel reservation could be filed under your first name by mistake).
  • Never call someone by only his or her last name. Unless specifically asked, do not call someone by his or her first name as this implies great familiarity.
  • Addressing someone by his or her courtesy or professional title and last name conveys respect. In Chinese the name precedes the title. For example, Liu Xiansheng for Mr. Liu, and Liu Jingli for Manager Liu.

Saying "No"

  • Refusing requests and saying no can cause a loss of face and disrupt surface harmony.
  • The Chinese have many ways of indicating refusal without actually saying "no." Commonly you will hear "that would be inconvenient," or "it will be taken under consideration," or "it is being discussed." 


  • Silence is used effectively. Not talking while others do signifies politeness.
  • Silence in meetings and during discussions gives one the opportunity to carefully consider what is being said and formulate an appropriate response. Resist the urge to fill the silence and continue talking. Patience is indeed a virtue.
  • The Chinese concept of privacy differs significantly from that in the West, where people are used to having their own space, office, room. To the Chinese, privacy relates to their own thoughts and emotions that they proudly keep to themselves.

Social Distance and Touching

  • Every culture defines proper distance. Westerners, particularly Americans, find that the Chinese comfort zone regarding distance is a bit too close for their comfort.
  • Instinctively Westerners may back up when others invade their space. Do not be surprised to find that the Chinese will simply step closer.
  • Do not hug, back slap or put an arm around someone’s shoulder.
  • Do not touch people with your hand. In China, touching someone represents considerable familiarity. In such situations, a smile would be a better course of action.
  • The Chinese generally do not queue up; do not be offended if you are pushed and shoved in a line.


If you are entering a meeting in which rank is important, be sure the highest-ranking person enters the meeting room first, followed by the next ranking official and so on. Otherwise the Chinese may mistake the person entering first as the leader of the delegation. The only exception would be interpreters who need to stay with the leader of the group.


Western gestures that are taboo in China include:

  • Pointing the index finger; use the open hand instead.
  • Using index finger to call someone; use the hand with fingers motioning downward as in waving.
Do not snap fingers.
  • Do not put feet on a desk or coffee table. It is rude to show the soles of the shoes.
  • Whistling is considered rude.
  • Use both hands when handing someone an object, such as a teacup, a gift, or a business card.

Western gestures that confuse:

  • Shrugging shoulders.
  • Winking.
  • The "OK" sign (Be cautious when using gestures; they don't always translate across cultures.)

Mutually-understood gestures:

  • Nodding the head up and down for agreement, side to side for disagreement.
  • Thumbs up indicating approval.
  • The smile.
  • Laughter. However, a note of caution: Although laughter is the response to something humorous, it can also mean someone is uncomfortable or in a situation where they do not know how to respond. Consider the situation.


Tipping is not officially sanctioned in China and is still not common. Service staff in local restaurants, hotels, and taxis do not expect tips. However, if you want to acknowledge special service or assistance, do it in private by slipping some money or a small gift to them.


  • Try to not drop your chopsticks, as this is considered to be bad luck. When you are finished eating, chopsticks should be placed across your bowl, or neatly on the table.
  • Under no circumstances should chopsticks be placed in the rice standing up. This symbolizes death. Always place on a chopsticks rest or horizontally on the side of a dish
  • While tea and soup may be slurped noisily, it is considered rude to chew noisily.

Drinking Water

Tap water throughout most of China is not considered potable, so it is recommended that you drink only bottled or boiled water. Attendees staying at the IETF meeting hotels will find bottled water in their guest room.


No vaccinations are required to enter China, although you might check with your doctor for recommendations.