The lost art of business – function with form in China

A polite clap rang throughout the conference room. Smiles spread and positivity flowed. If this doesn’t sound like your average work meeting, you aren’t alone, and you probably aren’t in China. Meetings in the US are dominated so tightly by function that we oftentimes overlook their true value. A recent trip to China for a new client was a good reminder of what actually is important and a good opportunity to reflect on a few of the small differences that make a big impact.


Most of the differences between meetings in the US and China stem from what feels like a lost art in American business: respect and tradition. In our fast-paced and almost strictly digital world, we at some point lost track of the what’s important – the personal relationships. Doing business in China feels like you have gone back in time to when ­­­­these connections were valued and celebrated.

A toast to partnership

Digital signatures on contracts are the norm for many business relationships. A contract is finalized by two individuals who will never shake hands or even meet, passing on a virtual signature. This is not the case in China. Instead, everyone gathers around a table as the two partners physically sign the contracts – champagne is popped, a toast “to a long and prosperous partnership” is given, there is another round of applause, and photos are taken to document the occasion. This is a great way to bring energy and life into a new engagement.

The power of “thank you”

A lot of work goes into preparing and giving presentations, oftentimes with little more than a “thank you” proffered after the presentation wraps up. In China, after each person finishes presenting, they’re rewarded with a polite round of applause. This not only brightens the mood of the presenter, but sets the tone for positive and constructive conversation. That’s a far cry from a cold Go-To Meeting and too much dead air on the end of the call.

Share your culture

Building upon the idea of partnership and sharing culture, we felt a personal bond with our Chinese clients. They shared ancient proverbs about success and friendship in their native language. They served us an astounding 20+ different local dishes, ranging from seafood from their local lakes – with fishheads on – to deliciously prepared vegetables I’ve never heard of. It’s like an old idea the Chinese haven’t forgotten: Share a personal story before jumping into the PowerPoint deck. We miss too many opportunities to discover new people and ideas.


We learned a lot on this trip and despite a fairly significant language barrier, we came away from the meetings as associates and friends. As a small step toward bringing some of these practices back to western business, next time someone finishes their prez, lead a little clap and see what happens to the dynamic of the room. If that doesn’t work…try champagne.