by Randall Mah
Doing business in China will almost certainly involve sharing a business meal with your Chinese hosts. While it might be tempting to think that eating regularly at your suburban Chinese restaurant means you are already familiar with Chinese dining customs, dining in China is a very different experience. Consequently, just as it is wise to brush up on Chinese business etiquette before meeting your local partners for negotiations, knowing how to conduct yourself during a Chinese business meal may pay big dividends.
It is customary to decline an invitation to a business meal a couple of times before accepting it. Your host will gently insist that you join him or her until you accept the offer.
Your Chinese hosts are likely to take you to a restaurant with a large banquet hall full of round tables. Many of these restaurants have private rooms more suitable for discussions. As China’s Confucian traditions still place emphasis on hierarchy, seating arrangements may be planned in advance. Typically during Chinese business dining, the guest of honor will be seated facing the door. The remaining guests are seated in descending rank first to his or her left and then right, with each subsequent guest seated to the left and then to the right and so on until the table is filled.
- Group-style meals
In China, a meal is a group experience and you will not order your own entrée. The host will order numerous dishes that are shared among everybody. Group-style business dining will give you a chance to sample everything. If it is a banquet-style dinner, dishes will be served in succession.
Once the food is brought to the table, allow the guests of honor to serve themselves first. While it’s likely the guests will not be able to finish all the food because hosts typically order more than can be consumed, avoid taking the last morsel.
Tea is always served. It is polite to serve those around you before pouring your own cup. If your Chinese hosts pour you tea, you may tap your middle and index fingers lightly on the table near the cup in appreciation.
- During the meal
It is common at Chinese restaurants in the United States for the uninitiated to try to use chopsticks to pick up rice and food off their plates, which makes using chopsticks seem like a chore. Chinese, however, eat from their rice bowls, holding them from underneath and close to their lips like cups. Chopsticks are used to pick up small pieces of food and to push the rice into your mouth. When serving yourself, food is placed directly in the bowl. Plates are used for placing bones and other waste.
Many Chinese are delighted by foreigners who know the proper use of chopsticks, so if you’re uncomfortable with chopsticks, practice with them before the business dinner. For better control, hold the chopsticks closer to the thicker, untapered end.
- Concluding the meal
The host is expected to pay the bill, although it’s polite to offer to pay. Chinese don’t go Dutch and tipping is not customary.
Once the meal is concluded and the bill has been paid, guests will begin to leave. Chinese tend not to linger and chat after business meals. To learn more about Chinese business communication, please click on this link: