Etiquette Tips to Help You on Your Next Business Trip to Taiwan

A business handshake
A business handshake | © perzon seo / Flickr
Ciaran McEneaney

If you spend a lot of time traveling for business, then the chances are that you may have found yourself in an uncomfortable situation or two. Should you shake hands or bow? Should you speak first or let your host start the conversation? Every culture has its own little traditions and, of course, a few taboos, and Taiwanese culture is no different. So the next time you’re on business in Taiwan, follow these etiquette tips for a smooth trip.

Greeting

When meeting someone for the first time, it’s acceptable to nod your head as a greeting. Handshakes are increasingly popular but are not expected, and while they are usually reserved for male to male meetings, some businesswomen have adopted the practice.

Japanese influence is still apparent in Taiwan, and it’s not uncommon for people in business circles to bow slightly when meeting or saying goodbye. It’s particularly respectful to do this to an elder person or one in a more senior role.

Interestingly, one of the quirkier greetings is to ask if you have eaten yet. Someone can ask you this at any time of the day, and although it’s a bit of a rhetorical question, it’s still polite to answer.

And last but by no means least, do not introduce yourself. A third person will always handle the introductions. This used to be true in social gatherings too, but younger generations are less inclined to follow this kind of tradition.

Gifts

When you travel to another country on business, it’s expected that you’ll bring a little something for the boss and perhaps the people you are meeting with. This is quite common in Taiwan, but you don’t need to go overboard. Gifts with your company logo are perfectly acceptable, as is food of any kind. Taiwanese love food and in business they are no different. Something traditional from your home country is a particularly good gift.

However, while gifts are very common, don’t feel slighted if they are put to one side unopened. In Taiwan, it’s considered rude to open gifts in front of the giver so if you receive one a simple ‘thank you’ is enough. And remember, use both hands for giving and receiving. You should keep this in mind for business cards too.

Gifts to avoid include knives and scissors or anything else that may symbolize the cutting of a relationship. And never ever give a clock as a gift. In Mandarin, the phrase for giving a clock sounds like the phrase for saying goodbye to the dead. As far as symbolic gestures go, you couldn’t choose anything worse.

A business gift

At work

If you need to speak with anyone, it’s usually preferable to do so in person if at all possible. While virtual meetings are very convenient, many employers in Taiwan are traditionalists and prefer face to face meetings. And no, Facetime doesn’t count.

You’ll notice that people rarely leave the office on time even if they have nothing to do. Here it’s very important to be seen to work hard and staying a little late is a great way to do so.

All business relationships are based on respect (as they should be) but in Taiwan respect is often given to the eldest regardless of their ability or business acumen. So for this reason employees will often defer to the eldest in the group.

Saving face is extremely important in Taiwan, and so it should come as no surprise that pointing out the failings (even as a joke) of another is a big no-no. No matter how much of a straight talker you are back home, you’ll need to reel it in for your Taiwanese business meetings.

In the meeting room

It doesn’t matter if you only need to speak to the two-person sales team, if you’re opening that meeting room, you need to include a senior executive. As the country adopts a more relaxed attitude in the workplace, this is becoming less of a necessity. However, you need to understand the office politics of the company you are visiting to make this decision. So when in doubt, invite an exec.

Make sure you have a translated copy of all your documentation unless specifically told that it’s not needed. While your peers may speak English very well, the senior executive present may only have a basic understanding.

Keep your voice down if making a presentation as being overly loud is considered either disrespectful or overly confident. You should also direct your presentation or speech to the senior executive in attendance. Even if he or she doesn’t understand English, it’s respectful to speak directly to them in meetings.

Eating out

Dining out isn’t quite the minefield that navigating office customs is. However, there are a few things you should note if your hosts take you out for a meal.

Never play with the chopsticks at the table or stick them in your rice as this looks a little like the joss sticks that you see at funerals. You should also never point at anyone with them or use your own chopsticks to take food from the middle of the table; there are usually serving chopsticks for that.

Allow the oldest person at the table to help themselves to food first and to start eating and don’t finish any item on the table. You need to be respectful of others and finishing the last dumpling might seem a little selfish.

Dining with chopsticks

Follow these tips, and the next time you’re in Taiwan on business, you can rest assured that you’ll offend no one and may even impress your hosts with your understanding of local customs.

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