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Mingling with China’s Elite

With a population of more than 1.3 billion, several dialects and more than a dozen ethnicities, it's hard to generalize about any aspect of life in China. Yet, for Westerners who want to fit in among China's wealthier citizens, there are some common aspects of Chinese manners and etiquette to keep in mind when living abroad.

First Impressions

When meeting somebody in China for the first time, a handshake is becoming more common, especially among the affluent who have often been educated in the U.S. or Britain, says Cynthia W. Lett, an etiquette expert at The Lett Group, based in Silver Spring, Md., which specializes in etiquette, communication and protocol training. However, a bow may still be expected, so a combination bow-handshake is a safe bet. 

On a first meeting, it's also wise to refrain from giving hugs. In general, the Chinese culture isn't fond of hugging or other types of close personal contact with strangers, says Casey Xiao-Morris, chief executive officer of Leverage China, an export management firm based in Los Angeles.

When invited to a social occasion, try to give a firm “yes” or a firm “no” and not the all-too-common “maybe” that many Westerners give.

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Out on the Town

Another key to socializing while living abroad in China: When invited to a social occasion, try to give a firm "yes" or a firm "no" and not the all-too-common "maybe" that many Westerners give. "They think it sounds very insincere," Lett says. "They know that it means 'no.'"

When an invitation is declined, saying "I have plans" will not suffice, Lett says. In China, it's customary for people to provide a detailed explanation of why they are unable to attend. "They want you to know that there's something extremely important that they have to attend to that would not allow them to be with you," Lett says.

If an individual accepts an invite to dinner at a restaurant, "going Dutch" is almost never acceptable. "Whoever invited the others has to pay for everything," Lett says. "And if there is no particular host, everybody's going to fight for the bill."

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Open Dialogue

Another tip relevant to China's wealthy involves a more open culture around luxury brands and shopping. "The Chinese want to share the shopping experience with everybody," Lett says. For example, if someone compliments a friend's new Louis Vuitton bag, it would be normal for that person to share how much she paid. Likewise, a Chinese friend may inquire about the purchase price of someone else's purchase. "If you don't answer, you'll seem rude," Lett says.

The same goes for salaries. Among China's wealthy, it is more common to discuss salary levels than is typical in American culture. Lett recommends that salary-shy individuals casually say something like "Never enough" or "I'm always trying to make more" in response to any salary-related questions.

If an individual doesn't mind sharing information about her salary or foreign purchases, she can use an online currency converter to help calculate the latest dollar to yuan exchange rate. Similarly, individuals can use a trusted online foreign exchange service to facilitate the transfer of funds for purchases or ongoing salary installments. 

While these manner and etiquette tips may be helpful for someone new to China, it's even more important to remember that cultural norms don't necessarily apply to individuals. When acclimating to living abroad, it's always best to learn and adapt based on one's personal experiences. 

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