Your Chinese business partners will rarely show what they are actually thinking. Their facial expressions and gestures are very unexpressive and monotonous in business life. Emotions, particularly negative ones, aren’t shown outwardly.
In many business situations keeping eye contact is not as common as you are perhaps used to. If your Chinese conversation partner does not look you in the eye it is not a sign of lack of interest, uncertainty, or dishonesty. A lowered gaze expresses respect, above all else. The same is true of a very serious facial expression accompanied by an upright, stiff posture.
Smiling, giggling, laughing
A Chinese proverb says, “You master life smiling or not at all.” The Chinese smile in difficult situations. That can be very irritating if, for example, you expect a serious facial expression in a conversation involving criticism.
However, smiling does not mean that they are treating the matter lightly and that they never take things seriously. Smiling, laughing or even giggling in difficult situations compensates for discomfort or stress. Also, the belief in China is that a problem should not be emphasized by a serious expression, but rather maintaining composure with a smile provides the basis for a possible solution.
If, for example, you explain something in training or a product demonstration and your Chinese listeners do a lot of giggling, that can be a sign that not everything was understood.
Train your eye and your intuition and you will quickly learn to interpret the fine nuances of Chinese smiling or laughing.
Gestures for numbers
Serious differences in gestures can cause confusion. The Chinese can, for example, count to 10 on one hand. Have a look yourself: 1,2,3 … 10.
What stands out? The gesture that in Western countries means 2, means 8 in China. It is not uncommon for unsuspecting foreigners to order not two cups of coffee but to their astonishment a whole tray full at once.
In many regions of China counting is started on the little finger – 1, 2, 3, after 4 the numbers are then the same. For 10 a cross can be shown instead of the fist, because the Chinese character for the number 10 looks like a cross. That is, as the Roman number 10, but turned at 90 degrees.
And the thumb with which many westerners begin counting – 1, 2, 3 … means “thumbs up” that is, “first class” or “super”.
A taxi or another person is waved at only with an arm stretched out at shoulder height and with the handheld downward. Never point at a person with your finger, only with the whole hand.