Surviving a Chinese Business Dinner

By Michael Jones (michael.jones@tsiglobalconsulting.com)

You’ve finally done it.  You’ve signed the documents, and your company now has a new business partner in China.  It’s very exciting, as China is one of the most desired markets in the world, and your company will now have access to its billion plus inhabitants.  You’ve done your research, brushed up on your Mandarin, and are excited to get your new operation up and running.  There’s only one problem.  On the night of your arrival, you are invited to a business dinner with representatives from your new partner corporation.  You’ve heard about this: the infamous Chinese Business Dinner.  It’s a common feature of working with Chinese partners.  Executives will host a lavish dinner party with numerous rituals and cultural idiosyncrasies that will baffle the unprepared westerner.  You can’t just back out; business dinners are a key component of successful partnerships in China, and westerners will be expected to know the rules.  What’s a western business owner to do?

Fortunately for you, the rules of the Chinese Business Dinner boil down into one key element – “face”.  “Face,” in Chinese culture, essentially refers to one’s image.  Chinese businesspeople “save face” by maintaining a strong, respected image, while they “lose face” if they are embarrassed.  As a foreign partner, you always want to ensure that you do not cause your Chinese counterpart to “lose face”.  Therefore, a good general rule is to always be respectful, and, when in doubt, follow your host’s lead, as they will not do anything that will cause themselves to “lose face”.  If you take away nothing else from this article, be sure to internalize this rule!

Of course, I understand, the face rule is a very general one – you need specific tips on getting through this dinner.  Well, never fear; here is an outline of how you should carry yourself for this night.  Following the rules begins as soon as you enter the dining room.  Always arrive on time, as being both early and late can be seen as insulting in Chinese culture.  As a guest, you will be seated directly across from the host of the banquet (if the table is rectangular),or to the right of the host (if the table is circular).  The host should be facing the door, so simply position yourself accordingly.  Once seated, you will notice the presence of several drinking glasses.  NEVER fill your own glass – someone else in your party will do so for you, and you will be expected to reciprocate.  Chinese dinners also have a lot of toasts, so be ready to drink.

As the different meals come out, be sure to sample everything – you don’t want your host to think that you are disgusted by their choice of food!  However, exceptions due to allergies will not cause your host to “lose face”, making this excuse a safe way out of eating something that you really do not want to.  In order to get your food, use your set of serving chopsticks to grab the food that you want.  You will have another set used exclusively for eating (do NOT mix these up!) and proficiency with chopsticks is appreciated, but not required.  When finished, be sure to leave a small amount of food on your plate.  Cleaning your plate shows that you are still hungry and that your host has not satisfied you with the amount of food provided.  Lastly, over the course of the night, try not to bring up business topics.  Despite being an important part of doing business, the dinner is largely seen as a social event, and you will be seen as a bore if you bring it up in conversation.  Feel free to talk about it if your Chinese host brings it up, however.

At the end of the night, the host of the gathering will always pay the bill.  Congratulations!  You have survived your first Chinese Business Dinner!  Wait, first?  Yes indeed, because you will definitely be attending another: at the end of your trip, foreigners will be expected to reciprocate the host’s generosity by hosting their own banquet for their partners.  So get used to the rules now, before you end up in the hot seat facing the door.  If you have any other questions about doing business in China, please contact TSI Global Consulting at 210-757-0618 for a consultation.

Share via emailShare on FacebookShare on Twitter

Testimonials