How not to embarrass yourself, or your company, at your next business lunch with your Chinese clients
Chinese culture goes back centuries. It is as rich with tradition, as it is, with seafood broth!
Knowing what to say – and do – at a luncheon event is key to making it a success.
In this article, the team at World Business Travel look at food culture, and etiquette too, and give you some tips we’ve crowdsourced from the Chinese themselves, to help you excel at it!
Tip 1- “it’s ok to ‘leave a little’ on your plate”
In western culture, it is considered rude not to finish everything that’s on your plate.
It’s part of the post-war hangover we all suffer from – during world war II, food was in such short supply, that Prime Minister, Churchill made it illegal to waste it.
In Chinese culture, however, finishing all that is on your plate, in this day and age of bounty, may send the wrong signal to your client.
What this may suggest to the host is that they have not fed you enough.
When at a Chinese banquet, or meal hosted by a Chinese client, always make it an aim to ‘leave a little’ on your plate, therefore. It suggests to the host that their meal, and hospitality, has been well-received and acknowledged.
Tip 2 – “Don’t point fingers”
Excellent advice, no matter what culture you’re operating within, it’s important to note that the Chinese, in particular, take exception to having fingers pointed at them.
If you’re in a restaurant, gesture using your hand, not your finger.
Don’t whistle, snap your fingers, or show the soles of your shoes at any time. It is considered impolite and may not be positively looked upon by the party you’re with.
Tip 3 – “Understand FACE, and be sure to extend it too”
The Chinese belief in Mianzi, or FACE, is very strong and can make or break a relationship – and therefore, a deal.
FACE is about understanding feelings, and ensuring you respect them. No-one likes to have their internal flaws or failures exposed, so be sure never to, and especially not at an event like a business lunch.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to a meal clearly hosted by your Chinese client, avoid the temptation to help settle the bill. It inadvertently suggests to your host that they cannot afford to pay for the meal.
During introductions at a meal, or other business or social function, stand up and offer a firm handshake while making full eye-contact.
Some Chinese may nod, or bow, slightly. Do exchange business cards, but present and receive cards face-up with both hands, followed by the more standard ‘pleased to meet you’ or ‘ni hao ma’ in mandarin.
Take a few minutes to read the card, to indicate interest in the person, before placing the card on the table in front of you, with CARE.
Tip 4- “the most important thing to do during lunch is enjoy it”
Guangxi (pronounced guanshi) literally means ‘relationships.’
Food governs relationships, even grants them, one might add, as long as one understands cultural and food norms – and follows them.
During a Chinese banquet, sample all the dishes on offer. Take care not to stick your chopsticks standing up in the rice, as this symbolizes death; be sure, also, not to arrange dishes in a single line, as it also reminds people of death.
Always let the host start the meal, this gives FACE to his position at the event, and it is more likely to make it a successful one for yourself.
Tip 5 – “return a toast if you are fortunate enough to be made one”
The Chinese are no teetotallers, and will frequently raise toasts to foreign business partners.
If you are fortunate enough to have a toast raised to you, be sure to reciprocate it.
Toasting is common practice, and is referred to as isgan bei, meaning ‘dry cup’ or ‘bottoms up.’
Ideal toasts centre around friendship, cooperation and pledges to work for mutual –collective – rather than individual benefit.
The true wealth of the Chinese people does not lie in business
It lies in culture.
Understand Chinese culture, and what you will understand is how you can tap into it, in a way that is not just individually beneficial, but collectively so, too.
From the team at World Business Travel, Xiangshou, and we hope you’ve had as much fun reading this article as we’ve had writing it!
World Business Travel gratefully acknowledges the role our China correspondent, Ms Clarissa Ng has played in the curation of this exclusive piece for our clients.