China: First Name or Title?

2015-06-12

First Name or Title?

Addressing others with respect.

Chinese names are usually given in the order of family name, then first name. The latter may consist of two parts, the generational name and the given name. However, the two are often spoken and written as one.

Think before you address someone with his Chinese name. Depending on the occasion, addressing people on a first name basis can be interpreted as impolite in China. In a culture with a strong Confucianism influence, a person’s position and associated roles are first and foremost in an organization.

The Chinese are very conscious about the rank and titles they hold. People around them also consciously accord them with respect based on their titles.

For that reason, you usually do not address a person, whom you newly know ,by his first name.

You may address the person with generic titles like ‘Mister’ or ‘Madam’. You may also address the person by using official or professional titles.

For example, if the person has the surname Li, and he heads the company that you are talking to, you may address him as ‘Li Zong’, meaning something like “Boss Li”. If he is a manager, you would address him as ‘Manager’. If his surname is Li, then he would be addressed as ‘Manager Li’. If he is a professional, such as an engineer or business consultant, you can either address him by using his profession, or respectfully address him as ‘lao shi’, which means teacher, even when he is not an educator.

When you are addressing a group of people by giving public speeches, take care to address the persons in the order of importance.

It is risky to simply address people in alphabetical order!

You must be careful about who should be addressed first, and who later. Usually, the governmental officials are given priority, followed by business bosses. It is, however, difficult to generalize. When in doubt, it is wise to consult your Chinese friends.

Be aware that age plays an important role in the social relationships.

You are expected to show respect to someone who is more senior than you in terms of age, even if his official position is below you.

Bear this in mind when you are planning a business negotiation. The key members of your team should not be too ‘young’ — if the other party consists of mainly people who are more senior in age.

Even if you care little about rank and title, give yourself appropriate rank and title when doing business in China. Otherwise, you may not be accorded with the right respect and attention. At the same time, it may put you in a disadvantageous position when you are at the business negotiation table.

Take care of your collateral, such as name cards. If you are an owner of small and medium-size companies who does not see the importance of rank and title, you will have to take a fresh look at this when you are doing business in China.

The name card has to reflect the appropriate title you hold. Otherwise, your Chinese counterpart may not take you seriously, causing you to miss business opportunities that you care about.

There is a trend among the younger generation of Chinese to adopt English names, such as John or Mary, or unusual names like Lion or Cloudy (usually a translation of their Chinese name).

You can be more casual when dealing with the younger Chinese. In this case, addressing a person by first name is acceptable.

When you are dealing with the more conventional Chinese, it is better to err on the right side by addressing with the appropriate titles.

The emphasis on rank and title may give one an impression that the social system is a hierarchical, unfair system. This is however not exactly the case.

While the hierarchy is clear, one’s position in the hierarchy does not need to be fixed.

Quite unlike a caste system, for centuries Confucianism recognized one’s value and effort, and gave room to personal mobility within the system.

The ancient imperial examination system is a case in point. An ordinary person with the right ability could become somebody when his capability was recognized. Although the percentages of those who changed their destiny by passing imperial examinations were few and far between, the system was meant to be egalitarian.

The same principle is still observed in the Chinese business organizations today.