This month I was a speaker at the annual conference of Educate Plus, an organisation focused on promoting and operating the business of private education, and I told a story of when I organised for a Chinese billionaire and his family to meet the Headmaster of one of Sydney’s most prestigious private schools. Honoured to have the chance to meet such an important dignitary, the Chinese family dressed immaculately, suit and ties for the males and formal dresses for the ladies, and arrived on time at the school on best behaviour. To their surprise, the Headmaster greeted them informally in a polo shirt and jeans and, whilst he was perfectly friendly and courteous, I could see that the Chinese family were disappointed by the informality of it all. They would have preferred the gown and mortar board for a formal group photo, or at least a suit and tie!
The same happened when I was required, as part of the membership entry process, to accompany one of my chinese friends, a senior executive at one of the large chinese banks, to introduce him to the President of my local Golf Club. Excited at the prospect of such an important meeting, my friend was delivered to the front door of the clubhouse by his driver, looking smart in a suit and tie, and the President (Bruce) having just come off the golf course, greeted him in scruffy shorts and a sweaty golf shirt. I have dined out many times on the cross-cultural exchange that followed (not enough space here to do true justice to this!) but the stark contrast between the formal Chinese and the informal Aussie was an absolute delight to this interested bystander! Luckily, there wasn’t an important deal on the line!
So the message is clear. If it’s important for you to make a good impression, make sure you dress up, rather than down, when deciding what to wear for a meeting with the Chinese. They prefer formality, as you would expect in such a hierarchical society so, if in doubt, dress up!