Your Honorable Name

Ellen DeGeneres is the host of the first American talk show to air in China. Ellen was surprised to find out that Chinese put their family name first; as she put it, "like filling in a form." Over in China, they might watch The DeGeneres Ellen Show. But actually, the Chinese watch The Happy Lady Dance Hour.

Ellen is thrilled to have new fans in China, and is reaching out to her new audience. But like most Americans, Ellen finds Chinese names impossible to pronounce. She had to call in her Chinese interpreter to help her out. Sunny, Ellen's interpreter, has adopted an American first name. Life is easier for both sides when Chinese and Americans can meet in the middle. You can also make your business relationship easier by acquiring a Chinese name.

Most Chinese family names consist of a single syllable. Some Americans are so inconsiderate that their family names have four syllables -- I'm talking to you DeGeneres Ellen. Further, most Chinese share one of only one hundred family names. So, our American family names, which reflect our immigrant ancestors' heritage, is very confusing for the Chinese. Imagine have a DeGeneres Ellen and a Dramer Kim at the same table. Now, add your own name to the mix. You see the problem.


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In choosing a Chinese name, it's best to choose a family name that sounds like the first syllable of your American surname. So, DeGeneres Ellen might decide to take the Chinese family name "Deng," like Deng Xiaoping. The name is derived from a state in ancient China. Or, she might pick "De," a name meaning righteous and upright. What a great advantage for a business meeting. Who wouldn't want to do business with an American smart enough to choose the name "Ms. Righteous and Upright"?

A Chinese name will help your Chinese counterpart in meetings, where they'd like to show their courtesy and respect. When Chinese make introductions, they first ask: "You honorable family name?" The response is to say one's family name, followed by one's given names. The "honorable" part is a courtesy on the questioner's part -- you don't repeat it in your answer. It sets the respectful tone for the rest of the conversation, and the relationship that you hope will follow.

After choosing a Chinese family name, you can choose a Chinese first name that sounds like your own given name, but with the added dimension of readily apparent meanings. For example, DeGeneres Ellen might enjoy the name Ailan, which is easy for her to remember because it sounds a bit like Ellen. "Ai" is love and "lan" is orchid. It's a bit cheesy in English, but quite pretty in Chinese. I'd check with Portia about all this, of course.

By using the name De Ailan in China, Ellen can convey her respect and desire to work as a partner with the Chinese. She also signals that she is a person who can give and take in any negotiation. If you go to the trouble to take a Chinese name, your Chinese business counterpart will see you as someone who does your homework before a meeting -- and that is a good sign for building future business.

Chinese will expect you to have business cards for your meeting. Even if they already know your name, the Asian business ritual of exchanging business cards is crucial before beginning any business discussion with the Chinese. The exchange of cards is rife with inferred meaning, and can make or break a deal before you've even presented your product or service. An excellent overview of the cultural expectations and implications of business card exchanges in Asian business is given by Syndi Weid, an etiquette specialist in San Francisco. She explains the ways in which one's business card is viewed as an extension of one's self in Asia.

Correct introductions are essential for beginning a business relationship in China that will end at the signing table. When a potential Chinese partner sees you've tried to show your willingness to meet half-way and done your homework, it will indicate that this is the way you also do business. It's steps like these that make any language barriers disappear. In other words, you don't need to speak a word of Chinese to do business in China, but you do need a certain level of cultural literacy.

Actually, a couple of words in Chinese can be a real icebreaker. Take your cue from DeGeneres Ellen as she discusses her Chinese show, The Happy Lady Dance Hour, that can now be viewed by over a billion people. And she's already making money from her Chinese business. Understand Chinese business etiquette and you can too.