Business Etiquette for Your Internship in China

Jason Rodgers
Jason Rodgers

Jason is a hockey player from Virginia, and his passport is a quilt of stamps and visas.

Shanghai View From SWFC

Is there anything in the world more confusing to college students and recent grads than business etiquette? Between the unwritten rules of coffee dispersal, break room banter and parking space hierarchy, there is enough to worry about when joining the workforce.

But what if your office is in China? And you're interning abroad? Vast cultural differences are multiplied across office politics, and navigating your Nine to Five can be full of pitfalls. But fear not, because as always, your gallant Go Overseas givers are here to offer you a survival guide to Chinese business etiquette!

Saving Face: A lesson in cultural exchange

Businessman in China

In Chinese society, it is less important to be right, than it is that the right person be right. The English expression “saving face” is a literal translation from the original Mandarin whence it originates. In public, authority figures are never to be questioned, shown up, or embarrassed. To cause embarrassment for your boss is unacceptable; you must fall on the sword for him even if he is obviously wrong. An anecdotal example from a friend:

I had a suit made by a local tailor in Guilin. The tailor very clearly told me to return on Saturday to pick up the completed suit. At the time he told me this, I asked him in Chinese, “Is that enough time? Will it be ready that quickly?” He must have taken this question as a slight to his professional skills. He assured me it would be.

On Saturday I called him, and he said the suit was ready. I took a cab all the way to his shop, and when I got there, there was no suit. He seemed surprised that I was there, even though we had just spoken on the phone and I had told him I was coming. “Suit?” he asked, surprised. “No no, I said it would be ready next Sunday. It will be another week, as I predicted all along.” He was lying, and he was saving face. He knew that I knew, and his eyes begged me to just play along. So I did, we shook hands, and next week I had my suit.

Business in China is notoriously bogged down in bureaucracy, and this concept of “saving face” is largely to blame. Because no one will publicly admit fault, problems are corrected very slowly, and only when changes can be made in secret. This may frustrate you as an American, where businesses are (more or less) meritocracies and improvements to corporate processes are welcomed as money-savers. As Go Overseas’ own Megan Lee says:

Many will tell you that in China, the boss is seen as “king.” Any behavior that would indicate you feel otherwise will be met swiftly with punishment.

So, even if your boss is wrong about aspects of your project, or makes false statements during presentations, simply smile, thank him for his leadership, and do what you can to correct the problem yourself, in private. Just make sure your boss looks good in the process, because to move up in Chinese business, you have to play the game. Friend-of-the-site Lauren Degarmo explains the give and take of “face”:

You have to be able to “give” face. If you want something from your boss, you need to be able to give something in return. To give advice, you need…to praise your boss or somehow make him feel like he was the one who thought of it in a way. To change the game, you’ve got to play the game, or so the saying goes. In China, remember that the rules of office politics are different, but just like in America, always make sure your boss is happy.

Better to Give Than to Receive: The importance of gifts


Gift-giving is another important part of Chinese society, and that bleeds into business etiquette as well. In America, it is considered polite to half-heartedly refuse a gift, saying objections like “Oh, I couldn’t! It’s too generous.” In China, this refusal would be considered rude.

In a business setting, your boss may frequently offer you little tokens: teas, books, fruits, and similar things. These serve as a chance for your boss to compliment your work, and to extend an olive branch of welcome to foreigners. As Megan Lee explains:

Although the gifts were by no means fancy, I did really appreciate the offerings – they made me feel like my employers cared about my general well-being.

Accept them graciously and gratefully, because the mock-refusal that typifies Western gift giving is taken at face value in China – that you genuinely don’t want your bosses’ gifts, and that they aren’t up to par. Such an act would be disastrous to your boss’ “face” – facecide, if you will – and will get you in the corporate doghouse faster than you can (and should) say xiexie.

Business Casual: Where does the office end?

KTV with coworkers

It is not unusual in America for your boss to invite you and your co-workers out for drinks or to dinner after work once in a while. These get-togethers are usually convivial and less buttoned-up than regular office interactions. You are still expected to maintain a reasonable level of decorum, but it is understood that you’re off the clock.

In China, your boss may frequently invite you out to dinner, or to the local KTV karaoke bar. From an etiquette standpoint, you would be wise to accept. And don’t just accept, but participate. Megan Lee, Queen of Chinese Etiquette, offers the following:

A lot of business is conducted in a more casual setting, such as around the dinner table or at the KTV. In China, it’s rude to not participate in the festivities, whereas in America, you could get by with not jumping in to sing a tune. If you want to impress your boss, join in!

Take that, people with stage fright! It all comes back to the concept of saving face; your boss has invited you to a karaoke bar, so the most boss-appreciative, face-giving response is to seem excited for the opportunity! It gives the impression that your boss knows what people like (big time face-giving), and subtly lets your boss know, “I appreciate the invite, and I’m willing to play the game.” Lauren Degarmo has worked for several companies inside China, and offers her perspective:

Sometimes I find myself acting in what I would think is a ridiculous way just to keep harmony in the company. For Chinese people…they have their work personality, or at least how they act around higher management or certain people, and then they just brush it off afterwards.

So forget your American ideas of after-work decorum. It isn’t singing your heart out the karaoke bar that will get you whispered about at work the next day – it’s not singing your heart out enough.

Fair is Fair (except when it's not)

Men in China

At the last census, 92% of China’s population was Han, the ethnic majority. China also has a patriarchal society, and baby boys are preferred to baby girls. Businesses, therefore, have a tendency to be boys’ clubs – Han boys’ clubs.

This may frustrate Americans who identify with groups that would put them in the minority in China – including racial minorities, women, and LGBT visitors. Lauren Degarmo relays the following:

Women are comparatively treated fairly well in the Chinese workplace, as in they also occupy many management positions. Nonetheless, women will find themselves the object of harassing language in a group of executives…joking about becoming the Big Boss’ girlfriend, comments about their beauty, etc. It can get pretty ugly and offensive sometimes. The women play into the situation in order to win the favor of the boss/client/whomever.

Basically it boils down to cultural differences, which is tricky. Are gender equality, racial equality, and sexual equality objectively good things? To us, yes, but not necessarily to Chinese people. Just as is the case in America, to advance in your career, sometimes you have to grin, bear it, and tell yourself that just because your boss is a jackass, doesn’t mean you aren’t meant for bigger things. Blame is also not assigned in an entirely fair way. Lauren describes a meeting she attended in which an employee noticed a mistake:

She points out a problem that is glaringly the manager’s fault…but the manager instead screams for some other, smaller assistant, and starts chewing her out for the mistake to save her own face.

These inequities can often be difficult for Americans to swallow, but try to remember that it is not your place as a visitor to impose your value system upon yours hosts or to insist upon it. Act fairly yourself, recognize that office inequalities are born of Chinese cultural differences, and continue moving forward.

Well, that about the covers the basics. Remember: don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, always face your fears, and all is fair in love and war! Something like that, right?

But really, we hope this guide will help remove some of the mystery and rumor surrounding working in China, and will serve as a valuable starting point in considering whether not taking a job in China sounds like your cup of tea!

Photo Credits: [email protected],, stevendepolo, Chris Marchant, and Jakob Montrasio.