People doing business in China should try to know how to address their Chinese counterparts, especially in formal settings so as to better engage with them. Different cultures mean people are addressed differently.
The names of Chinese people have their own unique characteristics and traditions. Most notably, and opposite to Western norms, a person's family name will come first and it is then followed by their given name. This given name will normally be made up of one or two characters that have a unique meaning. In many cases, the given names are aligned with family naming traditions that are passed down through generations.
Because Chinese given names have special meaning, it thus becomes obvious that Chinese names cannot simply be translated into other languages. When you do meet someone with a Western name, this name is usually given to the Chinese person by an elder relative or teacher when they were young, or, in some cases, selected by the person themselves later in life.
Addressing people correctly
What is slightly more complicated and important, however, is to realize that in formal situations, like business meetings or negotiations, addressing your Chinese counterparts correctly is key to making the right first impression and fostering good relationships. Social status and ranking is still important in Chinese culture, and this is demonstrated in how people address each other today in formal settings.
While it is common for friends to address each other by their given names or affectionate nicknames, it is only advised to do so if one's Chinese counterpart specifically advises a preference in this regard. Otherwise, they should always be addressed by as follows: Their surname followed by professional work title or occupational position.
Certain vocations carry a high social status in China, and these types of professionals are traditionally addressed by their job titles, such as doctor (yisheng), lawyer (lushi), judge (faguan), professor (jiaoshou) or Ph.D. holder (boshi). People can be addressed directly by these titles or with their surname placed before the title as well.
It is interesting to note that in recent years, the title of teacher (laoshi) has evolved far beyond its original literal meaning of "school teacher." Outside of education, it is now commonly used in companies, the media, and entertainment industries to respectfully address someone who has expertise or knowledge in a specific field.
Name and title order
In business, as with the aforementioned jobs with high social status, surnames are placed before their organizational rank when addressing colleagues or counterparts in formal settings. Typical business ranks would be director (dongshi) or manager (jingli).
Another term which has become popular over the last decade is the abbreviated title of chief (zong). It is effectively the shortened version of chairman (zongcai), general manager (zong jingli), or chief engineer (zong gongchengshi) and so on. Again, such a person would be respectfully addressed with their surname before this title. Nowadays, the title is used to address anyone who holds a relatively high position within their organization.
In addition, there is the Chinese term for master (shifu) which, like the above titles, is not gender specific. The title is a respectful term for people with a technical skill or can also be used to address a blue-collar worker. An everyday example of this would be using this term in addressing a taxi driver.
In this article, we have covered only a few of the most common professional and business related titles. Addressing people in China can thus be confusing when taking into account the many different social contexts and situations in everyday life. When in doubt, the safest would be to use the titles of madam (nushi) for female counterparts or sir (xiansheng) when addressing men in formal settings.
(The author Jon Newton is a Shanghai-based entrepreneur, China startup specialist, keynote speaker and Adjunct Professor of Chinese business at SKEMA Business School in China. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn at: www.linkedin.com/in/jonnewton/)