How greetings are handled will depend on who is being greeted by whom and what the circumstances are. If you are being met at the airport by company representative, he or she may have a sign with your name on it. You could be met by an entire delegation from the company. There are so many protocol issues that go with official greetings that it is impossible to cover them all.
Once out of the airport, how and when you will meet your business counterparts also depends on the purpose of your visit and the arrangements you have made. Some circumstances would warrant a formal greeting with some ceremony, press coverage, or other recognition; other situations would be better handled in a more private or informal manner. What is discussed when is an issue in both cultures as is the approach to the discussions.
Giving presents and gifts is a normal part of marketing and public relations. Appropriate gifts can help bridge cultures and aid in developing good relationships with your business partners. Inappropriate gifts, as may well be expected, can result in a negative impression.
How and where guests are welcomed will depend, universally, on the parties and circumstances. Your host or parent company may send someone to the airport or you could be on your own. A formal welcome party will likely be arranged at some point, particularly if you are an officer of the company or traveling with a delegation. If you are attending a trade fair, you will likely be more on your own than if you have been directly invited by a specific company. What is normal? A great deal will depend on your position with your company and whether you are traveling with a large delegation, a small group, or independently.
Usually, some time at the beginning of any business visit will be devoted to introductions and basic orientation. This may include a tour of manufacturing facilities or it could be a series of formal presentations. This brings up an interesting problem in cultural relations. Normally, an American business traveler would be focused on business and might expect to start meetings shortly after arriving. But a welcome dinner might be the first thing a Chinese host would arrange. Usually, it’s not polite to discuss business details during such a dinner.
When it comes to meeting people, a handshake is regularly used by both American and Chinese business people during introductions and as a standard form of greeting. A small bow with two hands clasped together is still commonly used by Chinese among themselves, especially among older people, but is rarely used when greeting Americans or other international business travelers.
Western family names are given last, which is why Americans refer to last name more frequently than family name. A person’s given name is placed first; hence the American usage of first name. Chinese family names are normally placed first with the person’s given name stated last. In some cases, a Chinese might omit his or her personal name, in favor of a title such as xiansheng (Mr.). What can make this even more difficult is that some Chinese, in an effort to accommodate western conventions, may change the order they use when dealing with westerners. If it’s not clear, ask.
The most common form of English taught in China is stated to be American English. It is important for Americans to keep in mind that there is quite a bit of difference in the way Americans and Chinese use English. This can be illustrated by the simple greeting “welcome.” Where an American would commonly say “Welcome” or Welcome to …” and fill in the blank with a city name, a Chinese might say “Welcome to you” with the intention of extending welcome to the person arriving or “Welcome you to…” including literally what would normally be omitted as the understood pronoun in standard American English.
While this is a minor point, other variations in usage may not be as simple or innocuous. There can be many unintentional difficulties in communication due to usage problems. What an American expects an English phrase to mean and what the Chinese person may actually intend can be quite different. This is not necessarily a question of correct English; the phrase may be grammatically correct. Rather it has to do with the context, the expectations of the listener and the way what is being said is normally used and perceived within the culture.
One of my students and I were going out. It was winter, so I put on an extra sweater. Then, I went outside to get my bicycle and wait. My student arrived shortly. “You’d better get your coat,” he said. “The day could turn cold.” “Thanks,” I replied. “But I will be fine.” As we started out he said, “You’d better ride straight and keep to the inside. You don’t want to cause an accident.” I said thank you again, trying very hard not to show my irritation. It was the second time he’d used that phrase. To my American ears, “You’d better …” is the beginning of a threat and is very argumentative. Even though I knew he was being considerate and only intended to suggest what would be “better” for me, I was still bristling.
It’s a good idea to automatically question anything that doesn’t come across well and to make sure you have understood what the other person was really trying to say. Politely restating the phrase or asking for clarification is the best way to do this.
You should not ask the interpreter for clarification. Ask the speaker.
The interpreter, if he or she is a professional, will have genuinely tried to render the statement exactly as the speaker gave it. It is not possible for the interpreter to know what the speaker intended and he or she should definitely not interfere with the communication by trying to guess.
Be especially careful of double negatives and ambiguous statements or responses. For example, the following exchange in English is ambiguous: “So are you saying that the project is not going to be finished?” “No.” In English, clarification would be required to determine the true status of the project. In Chinese, the positive would be assumed and it would be concluded that the project is going to be finished.