Meals are an important part of life in China, and business banquets are about the most important meals you can get. Business dinners are indeed an essential ingredient in the lives of those doing business and working in China. Whether you’re hosting or attending, these essentials etiquette tips will help you survive and thrive at business meals and banquets in China.
Photo: US Department of State
There’s no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to business meals and banquets in China. They can be large or small, formal or informal, and the way a meal is structured will depend on the host. But whether you’re hosting or being a guest, there are some longstanding etiquette rules that should be observed. The tips below were gleaned from a vice manager, a general manager and an administrator of sales and marketing at three different Chinese companies. Rest assured, these guys have earned their Chinese banqueting stripes.
If You’re the Host:
Before sending out the invitations, consider the status of your guests and the relationships between them. Chinese people value status greatly. The best way to respect this is to avoid inviting people of widely varying status. If most of the guests are managers, for example, don’t invite staff of much higher or lower levels. Also, don't invite people who are known to dislike each other. You don't want to create embarrassment or disrupt the essential harmony of the meal, which is very important in Chinese culture.
The location of your meal, the food and the drinks all need to be considered carefully. If you’re familiar with your guests’ likes and dislikes you can choose a restaurant according to that. If you aren’t very familiar with your guests, however, don't select a restaurant that serves very unique food. Choose one that does the most popular dishes well. At the very least, some sort of seafood will be expected as part of the feast.
Send your invitations in advance and give your guests plenty of time in which to respond. Because many Chinese people, especially those in high positions, don't like to reply immediately, you’ll have to be patient and wait for your responses.
Introduce the guests to each other before siting down for the meal. Be careful to observe the social order – introduce lower status guests to higher status ones, and younger attendees to older ones.
Arrange your seats according to your guests’ status. The common arrangement for a round table is for the host (that's you, remember) to be seated to the east, with the higher-status guests nearest to him and the rest in descending order. The common arrangement for square or rectangular tables is with the host facing the door with his high-status associates close by. However, if there is no door in sight, revert to the host-in-the-east arrangement.
Most people who host a business meal in China will want to show off with abundant food and plenty of báijiǔ (白酒 - rice wine). Although wasting food won’t win you any humanitarian prizes, make sure you order more than enough to feed your guests. If everyone groans when the last few dishes come out you’ve ordered the right amount.
Keep on Toasting
To keep a happy atmosphere, there should be MANY toasts during the meal. As the host, you should expect to lead the first and then several others throughout the meal. See this full guide to the dos and don’t’s of Chinese toasting.
Hold off Talking Shop
According to a Chinese saying, "fànzhuō shàng bù tán shēngyì” (饭桌上不谈生意), which means "don't talk about business at the dinner table", you should stay away from talking shop at a Chinese business banquet. That might seem to contradict the reality you’ve experienced, but the issue can be cleared up nicely by another saying, "fàn chī hǎole, shēngyì yě jiù hǎole”(饭吃好了, 生意也就好了), which essentially means, "business can be easily done if you treat them to a good meal".
The food and small talk at a Chinese business meal essentially act as social lubricators. Any talk of business shouldn’t start until long after the meal has begun or even left until the end. Naturally, not too many negotiations are finalized during business meals, but you can use the time to work on your guānxì (关系 - social relationships). This in itself is vital to doing business and working in China, as many businessmen/women don't feel confident about working with unfamiliar people.
Expect to drop anywhere between several hundred and ten thousand RMB on your business banquette. Most business people in China lean towards the extravagant end of that scale. As the host, you shouldn’t leave your seat unless it's absolutely necessary. Therefore, it's best to arrange for one of your staff to pay the bill at the end. To avoid embarrassment, don't pay the bill in front of your guests or let them know the cost. Some people might fight to pay the bill, even though they are guests. Absolutely do not let them!
If You’re the Guest
On particularly special occasions, such as a retirement or the completion of a big deal, gifts may be appropriate; baijiu and regular red wine are safe bets and always appreciated. If you've brought a very expensive gift but no-one else has, avoid giving it to the host in front of the others as it might seem rude. This guide to gift giving in China will give you a good idea of what is and isn’t appropriate.
Before you go, think about what you will talk about during the meal. Since you’re likely to meet new people who may be helpful for your business or guanxi circles, you should take every opportunity to leave a good impression. Mind your tone and way of talking. Wild gestures and boastfulness are frowned upon in China, so try to be overly-humble, reserved and complimentary towards others. Never bring up business unless the host does.
Chinese people don't usually tell their host when they don't like something on the table as this would be considered impolite. However, if there’s something you absolutely can’t stomach or leave discretely on the side of your plate, say you can’t eat it because it makes you sick. This is a widely accepted cop out that will usually lead to no further questions.
You'll almost certainly be giving and receiving business cards during the meal, so don't forget to give your card the Chinese way, with both hands at the two corners closest to you. When receiving a business card, take it with two hands and look at both sides for a moment or two before placing it on the table. After a short while you can squirrel it away in your card holder, bag or pocket. Business card presentation in China is an art.
You're likely to see plenty of toasts comes your way during the meal. When they do, but sure to follow Chinese toasting etiquette. Don't try and lead a toast unless you’re at least vaguely familiar with the other guests. If you feel it’s appropriate, always toast the host first before moving on to other high status guests. Here are a few traditional toasts to try:
"Wèi hézuò yúkuài gānbēi" – "Toast to our good cooperation"
"Wèi wànshì shùnlì gānbēi" – "Toast to everything going smoothly"
"Wèi jiànkāng gānbēi" – "Toast to good health"
"Wèi shēngyì hónghuǒ gānbēi" – "Toast to our business getting better and better"
"Wèi chénggōng gānbēi" – "Toast to our success"
Familiarize yourself with Chinese table manners and try not to make any major faux pars. If in doubt, sit back and follow what the other guests do. In a nutshell, don’t reach across the table and only put small amounts of food on your plate at any one time. If you want to be REALLY polite, put the best cuts of meat on the plate of the person to your left.
Drinking alcohol may be practically enforced at Chinese business meals, but obviously avoid getting drunk-drunk. Feign being tipsy early and politely refuse if necessary. This is a good strategy as you’re likely to have a few extra drinks forced on you anyway. Read this in-depth guide to Chinese drinking culture and etiquette and you can’t go (too) wrong!
Any more tips on hosting or being a guest at a Chinese business banquet? Leave them in the comments section below.