Doing Business in China? 19 Cultural Differences You Should Know

Lexa Pennington's picture

Are you conversant with western cultures but seeking opportunities in China? One of the things you should know is that there are profound cultural differences between the U.S and China.

Here is your guide to intercultural success in doing business in China.

From Doing Business in China? 19 Cultural Differences You Should Know. Hands on a laptop, with USA and China flags and documents on the table.

About Those Intercultural Differences

Different cultures run on a wide variety of set values. And if you want or hope to be successful in abroad, understanding those values becomes critical. You may already be setting yourself up to fail if you don't understand the dramatic cultural differences between cultures.

Most people are generally motivated by practically the same things, including:

• Money
• Comfort
• Job satisfaction
• Providing comfortably for the family
• Security, etc.

However, every culture reaches these goals through a wide variety of routes. By understanding the cultural differences between U.S and China, you’ll work toward improving your intercultural communication…and business success.

Why It is Important to Study Other Cultures

Studying other cultures is an important endeavor, especially before interacting with someone from a different country. It makes no sense to embarrass yourself or drag your culture in the mud. For instance, wearing white attire in an African country like Nigeria is a sign of felicitation and celebrations, while wearing white attire in a place like India means you are mourning a dead relative or loved one. 

You don’t want to trigger the wrong emotions or pass a wrong message just because you are not familiar with a culture.

Most of cultural knowledge is derived from food and entertainment (movies, music, etc.). However, that knowledge is practically useless in reality, because only a tiny glimpse of a culture is revealed in such a manner. And as a global citizen hoping to do business abroad, it becomes essential to learn about cultural differences before working abroad.

Doing Business in China? 19 Cultural Differences You Should Know. Photo of a businessman and businesswoman, standing and looking at office paperwork

19 Important Cultural Differences Between Doing Business in the U.S and China

Difference in culture can be a serious issue for all participants—and may even hurt intercultural relations. This is why one must be highly sensitive to the actions and comments of others from another culture. While there are vast differences between Americans and Chinese, there also some similarities, including assertiveness, successes, competition, and power. It is important to note that these cultural differences also enhance the growth between the two nations, and they both rely on the prowess of each other to sustain their growth. 

Knowledge is on.

Doing Business in China? 19 Cultural Differences You Should Know. Photo of a global business team, seated at a large table and  looking up at the camera

The Social structure/system

China’s social structure is hierarchical and formal. You are always aware of exactly where you fit in the entire system, and you have no choice but to stick to the rules. This cultural practice is highly ingrained in China as a result of the Asian country’s political structure. Since it is a communist country, the government has the power to enforce extreme control over China’s entire population. It conducts personal surveillance as well as censors the media. As a regular individual, you are not permitted to act or speak out against the regime, no thanks to the power highly invested in the Chinese government. If you do, be ready to face severe consequences. 

The social structure in the United States is more informal and looser. It is quite common to see people of various social levels knowing each other, and even socializing. The social lines that are not permitted to be crossed are relatively few; this may cause some issues or problems if a visitor is quite unaware or unmindful of this. 

Business relations

A key component of global business success is to understand business etiquette. 

In the USA, aloofness is a significant part of conducting business. American business meetings may involve a little bit of social gathering among associates, but the business itself is of utmost importance. On these grounds, socializing is less important, due to the societal imperative to close as many deals as possible.

But when doing business in China, this becomes secondary, while socializing is positively encouraged. The primary reason for socializing is for the parties to get to know more about each other. Delaying a contract due to socializing is perfectly acceptable, especially if the business associate assigns the correct time for the meeting. If you are planning on doing international business, endeavor to practice the saying, “when in Rome, behave like a Roman.” 

Communication pattern/style

Americans are blunt, sometimes persuasive, and like to be at the top of every negotiation…especially when it comes to business. In taking into account needs of others, Chinese are a polite and considerate set of individuals, and conduct business in that way.


Chinese culture places great value on being sensitive to the needs of the other person. It is expected for you to respect that other person and always treat them well. At each encounter, needs must be met. Respect in Chinese culture ties in neatly with a reputation, as people who don’t respect others will be summarily shunned in Chinese society. 

However, this is where cultural differences between U.S and China become obvious. In American circles, respect isn’t held in the high regard seen in Chinese culture. 

Doing Business in China? 19 Cultural Differences You Should Know. Image is of 2 business people shaking hands or bowing in a glass-enclosed hallway


Americans have a direct way of approaching issues that is not culturally acceptable in China. Chinese culture frowns heavily upon confrontation or conflict over issues. Honor and respect to every person supersede the need for the truth to be revealed or spoken. 

The concept of pride

Americans are an individualistic set of people; they like to personally achieve their goals. Chinese believe all goals should be achieved as a whole—and through teamwork. 

Business legal settings

Business dealings among Americans are legally binding, as contracts are usually filled and signed to finalize business decisions and dealings. Among the Chinese, the status quo isn’t the same, as Chinese often finalize their business dealing with a handshake. While this may sound insensible to one used to legal contracts, it is important to note that Chinese are bound in a cultural way without a contract, and behave thusly to preserve their honor. Going back on an agreement rarely occurs. 

The concept of innovation

The definition of innovation among the two countries is different. Americans like to produce or create new things; Chinese prefer working on existing ideas or products to make it better.

Method of merging business and personal differences

While Americans can start a business with an individual whom they aren’t friends with, Chinese wouldn’t even think of it; their value for interpersonal relationships supersedes any other form of business relation. 

Patterns of decision making

Americans are known to be fast when making their decisions, whereas Chinese do the opposite, taking their time (and are, hence, slower at decision making).

Sensitivity to time

When cultures interfere with the efficacy of doing business, it can be pretty frustrating. Americans are highly sensitive to time, especially when it comes to deadlines and meetings. If an official appointment is to commence by 1pm, all parties must be present at 1pm. If an American expects a specific report by Thursday, they will be waiting for the report to be submitted before the end of that particular day.

The Chinese businessperson will not even bother or worry if such a report shows up several days later than expected or stipulated. Why? The Chinese view time as a suggestion, not an absolute. If a meeting starts late or ends at a time not previously stipulated, no concern is expressed. As an American used to the American way of life, especially when it comes to time sensitivity, knowing this will help ensure your success.

Reverence for authority

Americans are known to challenge constituted authority. When they feel their leaders aren’t performing their duties, they can go to the length of impeaching such leaders from their positions of power. On the other hand, Chinese do not challenge their leaders; they respect constituted authorities and obey their leaders to the last word.


Chinese culture deeply reveres humility. Every Chinese is expected to downplay success in their personal or business life.

But in the US, the opposite is the case: successes are lauded publicly or loudly. The majority of Americans in the fast-paced business world always consider humbleness as an undesirable sign of weakness.

Respect for Elders

The Chinese have practiced utmost respect and reverence as far back as the very ancient days of Confucius. The older you are in Chinese culture, the more respected and wiser you are expected to be. The accumulated wisdom of the old is always an excellent source of reverence and inspiration for the up and coming or younger generations.

Chinese families also take great care of their elders; it is sharply frowned on if a Chinese family commits an older adult to a retirement home. This is why it is not uncommon to find a traditional Chinese family unit comprised of parents, children, as well as grandchildren.

On the other hand, American culture encourages independence and the separation of children from their parents as soon as they become legal adults, which is quite different from life in China.

The Length Parents Can Go for Children’s Education

Chinese parents can go to great lengths to ensure their children get a high-quality education. They have been known to buy apartments not too far away from the school they want their children to attend. This education marathon starts in preschool and goes right through high school. Chinese parents can even spend a lot of extra money for their children to get very high scores on both high school and college exams. This may involve hiring tutors to assist the children one-on-one with their homework. 

But in the US, the children have a bit more autonomy than Chinese kids, especially when it comes to the kind of school they choose to go, the type of future they envisage, etc.
American parents stress less on getting excellent grades. However, they may broaden the kids' horizons by engaging actively in conversations about politics, news, and participating in sports or school projects.

How Money is Spent in Both Cultures

America and China are two great countries popular or well-known for their profound love for all things technology. This is one of the most significant similarities between American culture and Chinese culture.

While many of the world's most significant advances and inventions took place in both countries, Chinese spend money frugally. They don’t consider it necessary to splurge on new gaming consoles, iPhones, etc.

Most Chinese households treasure money, and preserve their finances for essentials such as repairs around the home, education, etc. It is far less important to purchase the latest gadgets, cosmetics, and even clothes.

American culture glorifies these things. You know what happens when the tech company, Apple announces the launch date of a new iPhone. The desire of Americans for the most recent or latest things is seemingly insatiable (to the benefit of manufacturers everywhere). 

Eating Out Etiquette

Here is another case of differing cultural etiquette. In the USA, it is typical for every person involved in a meal outside the home to go Dutch, including tipping the staff.

But when you invite someone for a meal in China and both of you meet at a café or restaurant, you will be the person to pay all the bills (and vice versa). It is not often necessary to tip the staff at a restaurant—and may even be considered rude if you attempt to do so.

Drinking Hot Water

This knowledge will also help if you are eating out. The concept of yin and yang will always remain an essence of Chinese philosophy as regards health. If yin overwhelms yang, you may start feeling cold. And if care is not taken, you may end up with a fever. The Chinese are known to drink hot water, as it quickly warms the human body while chasing away the yin within.

It is not surprising to see people drinking iced tea and cold water in the US, even when the weather is at below freezing. 


You can bargain for anything or everything when you visit a Chinese market. Your bargaining skills will determine how much cheaper you will get groceries, fruits, etc.

In the US, bargaining is not an accepted part of any purchase. If the price is set, you are expected to accept it or move on to a cheaper alternative (or none at all). 


How to ease your cultural adjustment process

Living in China is far easier than you might imagine, although, as with any time that you move abroad, you will have an adjustment period. 

Learn even more about Chinese culture from those around you: observe daily actions or interactions as much as you possibly can, and then reflect on these interactions later on. Learn as much of the language as possible, and interact with both locals and expats. Read, read, read.


Thinking of working in China?

Experience is said to be the best teacher for a first–hand experience to feel and understand a culture–and cultural differences. A visa to China is your first step; if you are looking to process a visa to China, Visa Express is the best at such services. They also provide document authentication service.


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