China Business Dinner Etiquette

China business etiquette

Nothing really new here, but the New York Times, in In China, Social Evenings Are Considered Part of the Business Routine, concisely explains the etiquette involved in Chinese business dinners:

  • Business dinners are “a very important event.”  The article does not say this, but I will. If you want to do business with a Chinese company, it really pays to accept their dinner invitation and you should learn the basics of what is, essentially, a ritual.
  • Business dinners on the mainland usually start at 6 or 6:30.
  • The Chinese host sits at the head of the table facing the door. As the company’s guest, you should sit “directly across from him if the table is rectangular. If it’s a round table you’ll be seated to his right.”
  • “Paying attention to details…can improve your standing in business negotiations.” “Giving face comes through what you say; it can come from body language; it can come through a seemingly gratuitous demonstration that you understand some aspect of the culture; it can come from something like a proper seating chart at a circular dinner table.”
  • Never pour your own beverage. Make sure the glasses of those next to you are always full.
  • Do not stick your chopsticks into your rice “like sticks into the ground;” Use your chopstick rest.
  • Taste everything but do not clean your plate.

Anything missed?

22 responses to “China Business Dinner Etiquette”

  1. At formal dinners, don’t take food from serving plates with your personal chopsticks (which have been in your mouth)–use the serving chopsticks from the serving dishes!
    The Western “napkin on lap” doctrine is less important in China, and for good reason, as the napkin (serviette) has multiple functions in China (and also tends to be small) so could itself produce a very dirty lap if kept there!
    I totally agree with Dan: follow the general behaviors (body language, glances, etc.) of the host–that is your best cue on everything on when to sit, to when to drink and so forth. A good host will lead the discussion, and a good guest will help to be led. Comments on the food that are more “in tune” than sycophantic–e.g. “I had something like this once in Dalian–the sea cucumbers were smaller, if I recall. Is that a regional situation, or seasonal, perhaps?” is better than “this is wonderful,” as it will help to lead to more discussion.

  2. The order in which to give toasts and to whom is also crucial. I’m still not entirely clear on the rules for this with business dinners, as I’ve mainly had experience with family dinners and the like. Can anyone here put forth a guide on the order in which to give toasts, who they should be given to, and the best general toasts to give to each person? I’m still not clear on all of it.
    Thanks!

  3. At formal dinners, don’t take food from serving plates with your personal chopsticks (which have been in your mouth)–use the serving chopsticks from the serving dishes!
    The Western “napkin on lap” doctrine is less important in China, and for good reason, as the napkin (serviette) has multiple functions in China (and also tends to be small) so could itself produce a very dirty lap if kept there!
    I totally agree with Dan: follow the general behaviors (body language, glances, etc.) of the host–that is your best cue on everything on when to sit, to when to drink and so forth. A good host will lead the discussion, and a good guest will help to be led. Comments on the food that are more “in tune” than sycophantic–e.g. “I had something like this once in Dalian–the sea cucumbers were smaller, if I recall. Is that a regional situation, or seasonal, perhaps?” is better than “this is wonderful,” as it will help to lead to more discussion.

  4. The order in which to give toasts and to whom is also crucial. I’m still not entirely clear on the rules for this with business dinners, as I’ve mainly had experience with family dinners and the like. Can anyone here put forth a guide on the order in which to give toasts, who they should be given to, and the best general toasts to give to each person? I’m still not clear on all of it.
    Thanks!

  5. Longtian’s question is spot on and something the artticle should have mentioned. My understanding is that first you toast the highest status person, and then work your way down.
    Also, you’ve got to drink alcohol, and if you can’t, for whatever reason, someone else has to do it for you, but it’s really better to drink yourself.
    In fact, practically every time you take a drink, you should be toasting someone else.
    Right?

  6. @hanmeng
    No, that’s not correct that you MUST drink alcohol. It’s not only not correct for foreigners in China – including people whose religious beliefs may prohibit them for imbibing – but increasingly for Chinese as well.Chinese women in the workplace are a lot less likely to be pressured to drink, for one example. I know of many women who do not engage in drinking (for various, sometimes sobering, reasons) during business functions and none of them have been adversely impacted.
    I wish people would stop with the claim that to do business in China one absolutely must drink alcohol. For one thing, it plays to a somewhat genial seeming, but ultimately outdated, portrayal of China business environment. Fine, there are still a lot of people who indulge in such behavior, but there are also a lot of American men who (feel that men should) stand up when a woman enters a room, won’t wear a hat indoors, and who wouldn’t dream of putting their elbows on the table during mealtime. None of that makes it a hard and fast rule to NOT do those things.

  7. @hanmeng
    No, that’s not correct that you MUST drink alcohol. It’s not only not correct for foreigners in China – including people whose religious beliefs may prohibit them for imbibing – but increasingly for Chinese as well.Chinese women in the workplace are a lot less likely to be pressured to drink, for one example. I know of many women who do not engage in drinking (for various, sometimes sobering, reasons) during business functions and none of them have been adversely impacted.
    I wish people would stop with the claim that to do business in China one absolutely must drink alcohol. For one thing, it plays to a somewhat genial seeming, but ultimately outdated, portrayal of China business environment. Fine, there are still a lot of people who indulge in such behavior, but there are also a lot of American men who (feel that men should) stand up when a woman enters a room, won’t wear a hat indoors, and who wouldn’t dream of putting their elbows on the table during mealtime. None of that makes it a hard and fast rule to NOT do those things.

  8. While dinners are important, in general a polite and positive attitude and an interest in your client/suppliers/partners business much more important than etiquette rules (which you can choose to observe or ignore). You can follow ‘etiquette’ to the letter but blow the dinner because you are boring and know nothing about who you are eating with… Prepare yourself for a discussion on the industry, your partner’s business, their worries and difficulties and indicate your own expectations etc in a casual setting. Being prepared for conversations during business dinners as important as preparing for business meetings. Much more important than which chopsticks you use or whether you drink or not…

  9. The chopsticks in the rice is a big no-no of course, but I’ve never actually seen any foreigner do that except a kid playing with his. Just follow everyone else’s example. You have to be pretty sloppy or immature to play with your utensils in the first place.
    On the other hand, what is commonplace elsewhere but rude here, is never drink by yourself at these types of dinners. If you’re thirsty, just remember to toast somewhere beforehand, everyone then drinks and you drink. Drinking alone (alcohol or no) is no-no. Also, if you smoke, and they offer you a cigarette, it’s very rude to decline… ever. It’s either you Never smoke, or you ought to always smoke with them.
    Just reciprocate, blend in, and generally you will be fine.

  10. While dinners are important, in general a polite and positive attitude and an interest in your client/suppliers/partners business much more important than etiquette rules (which you can choose to observe or ignore). You can follow ‘etiquette’ to the letter but blow the dinner because you are boring and know nothing about who you are eating with… Prepare yourself for a discussion on the industry, your partner’s business, their worries and difficulties and indicate your own expectations etc in a casual setting. Being prepared for conversations during business dinners as important as preparing for business meetings. Much more important than which chopsticks you use or whether you drink or not…

  11. The chopsticks in the rice is a big no-no of course, but I’ve never actually seen any foreigner do that except a kid playing with his. Just follow everyone else’s example. You have to be pretty sloppy or immature to play with your utensils in the first place.
    On the other hand, what is commonplace elsewhere but rude here, is never drink by yourself at these types of dinners. If you’re thirsty, just remember to toast somewhere beforehand, everyone then drinks and you drink. Drinking alone (alcohol or no) is no-no. Also, if you smoke, and they offer you a cigarette, it’s very rude to decline… ever. It’s either you Never smoke, or you ought to always smoke with them.
    Just reciprocate, blend in, and generally you will be fine.

  12. Are there any particular differences for businesswoman? Are they also encouraged to smoke, drink, et cetera like they were a businessman? Are there other differences in a business dinner between a businessman and a business woman?

  13. Are there any particular differences for businesswoman? Are they also encouraged to smoke, drink, et cetera like they were a businessman? Are there other differences in a business dinner between a businessman and a business woman?

  14. During a business dinner in China, the food typically is served on a lazy Susan type arrangement in the middle of a round table. Typically you as the guest will have the new dish spun around to you, so that you can be served (serve yourself) first.
    This was difficult for me at first, as I wanted them to be first per our Western manners, (After you, oh no, please after you, etc., etc). Soon I realized that this made my counterparts uncomfortable, and not sure what to do. If they spin the new dish to you, then serve yourself, if you need help (as with the steamed fish) then ask and someone will certainly offer to assist you (sometimes with great relief) and you can watch and learn how to remove the bones from the fish, (but never to turn it over) or some other type of local knowledge that they love to teach to a willing and observant student.
    I also noticed that usually towards the end of the dinner they will ‘pick’ at the remaining food, using their own chopsticks and are not as strict as Japanese chopstick etiquette.
    Like someone said, never pour your own drink, and feel free to pour others. One time I picked up the tea pot and went around the table pouring out to the others, this caused a lot of smiles and appreciation that I was blending in and participating in the meal and was not nervous or shy.
    So participate in the dinner once you see how it is done, spin the lazy Susan to someone that you see is trying to get at an item, always watch the host to see what he/she wants (everyone else is watching them too), also take care that the serving tools are replaced in the dish not facing out so as not to knock over glasses as it is being spun around, I have almost knocked over a glass or two this way.
    Keep in mind that Chris’s statement is always true and overarching, that you need to be an engaging and curious guest and just have fun. And know that the etiquette is not as important as a good shared laugh. That to be a good guest, at ease and not so worried about being so formal, will please your host and go a long way to forming a good relationship.

  15. During a business dinner in China, the food typically is served on a lazy Susan type arrangement in the middle of a round table. Typically you as the guest will have the new dish spun around to you, so that you can be served (serve yourself) first.
    This was difficult for me at first, as I wanted them to be first per our Western manners, (After you, oh no, please after you, etc., etc). Soon I realized that this made my counterparts uncomfortable, and not sure what to do. If they spin the new dish to you, then serve yourself, if you need help (as with the steamed fish) then ask and someone will certainly offer to assist you (sometimes with great relief) and you can watch and learn how to remove the bones from the fish, (but never to turn it over) or some other type of local knowledge that they love to teach to a willing and observant student.
    I also noticed that usually towards the end of the dinner they will ‘pick’ at the remaining food, using their own chopsticks and are not as strict as Japanese chopstick etiquette.
    Like someone said, never pour your own drink, and feel free to pour others. One time I picked up the tea pot and went around the table pouring out to the others, this caused a lot of smiles and appreciation that I was blending in and participating in the meal and was not nervous or shy.
    So participate in the dinner once you see how it is done, spin the lazy Susan to someone that you see is trying to get at an item, always watch the host to see what he/she wants (everyone else is watching them too), also take care that the serving tools are replaced in the dish not facing out so as not to knock over glasses as it is being spun around, I have almost knocked over a glass or two this way.
    Keep in mind that Chris’s statement is always true and overarching, that you need to be an engaging and curious guest and just have fun. And know that the etiquette is not as important as a good shared laugh. That to be a good guest, at ease and not so worried about being so formal, will please your host and go a long way to forming a good relationship.

  16. When toasting, keeping the rim of your glass below that of someone of higher status when you clink glasses is a show of respect. You sometimes see people fighting to put their glass lower as a show of respect.
    It is polite to hold your business card with two hands when presenting it to someone.
    I have also seen lots of people drink non-alcoholic beverages when toasting, without causing a stir. But there is no doubt that if you are with someone who likes to drink, imbibing with them is likely to gain you a bit more goodwill.

  17. When toasting, keeping the rim of your glass below that of someone of higher status when you clink glasses is a show of respect. You sometimes see people fighting to put their glass lower as a show of respect.
    It is polite to hold your business card with two hands when presenting it to someone.
    I have also seen lots of people drink non-alcoholic beverages when toasting, without causing a stir. But there is no doubt that if you are with someone who likes to drink, imbibing with them is likely to gain you a bit more goodwill.

  18. Since a dish is round, always pick the food located at the dish edge facing your side. This is considered courteous behavior to show your business partners that you are NOT eating across the their lines.

  19. Since a dish is round, always pick the food located at the dish edge facing your side. This is considered courteous behavior to show your business partners that you are NOT eating across the their lines.

  20. Longtian’s question is spot on and something the artticle should have mentioned. My understanding is that first you toast the highest status person, and then work your way down.
    Also, you’ve got to drink alcohol, and if you can’t, for whatever reason, someone else has to do it for you, but it’s really better to drink yourself.
    In fact, practically every time you take a drink, you should be toasting someone else.
    Right?

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