How to Survive a Chinese Business Dinner
BY Burt Helm
Savvy entrepreneurs know how to charm their Eastern hosts once the rice wine starts flowing--and get back to their hotel rooms in one piece afterward.
In the Chinese deal-making process, the formal banquet is crucial: It's how businesspeople size one another up, build trust, and unwind together. Typically held in restaurants' private back rooms, they feature exotic dishes, continual toasts of Baijiu (a traditional rice wine), and never-ending offers of cigarettes. For an American unused to Chinese etiquette, they can feel bewildering.
Recently Adam Kasha, chief executive of Ann Arbor-based Akasha Inc., who has imported goods from China since 1997, shared a few tips for how American visitors can impress their Chinese hosts. (In the March 2013 Issue, readers can find out how he discovered the culture's pitfalls the hard way). Here are a few ways to ace the strange and crucial ritual, and stand out from the typical foreigner:
Dress as formally as your hosts.
If they are in suits, wear a suit. If they are in jeans, wear jeans. But, look nice and be well groomed – your host may want to show you off to friends, family, business associates and local officials.
Bring bi-lingual business cards. (Chinese one side, English on the other).
Expect to exchange these early and often—with anyone from the boss to the restaurant owner to a visiting government official to the boss's secretary. Present your card with two hands, Chinese side up. When receiving a card, take a minute to look at it. Once you are all seated, pay most deference to the highest status person there.
Let your host seat you.
Guests are seated according to status, with the host typically sitting on the east side of the room or facing the door (it's good feng shui), and the higher status guests nearest him. If you arrive first, just don't sit at the plate with the cloth napkin folded in the shape of a crane – that's the host's seat.
Unless you know the menu, let them order the food.
If you have a special food requirements, e.g. you are a vegetarian, let everyone know up front--before you arrive at the famous suckling pig restaurant.
Don't talk business—unless your host does.
Chinese people like to enjoy their meals and take a break from the day's work. However, if they want to talk shop–go for it. Just expect that once the drinking begins, anything that you agreed to, toasted, high-five'd or hugged out will be forgotten in the light of day.
Chopsticks aren't mandatory
If you know your skills are lacking, don't embarrass yourself – just ask for a fork and knife. Otherwise, impress your guests with your natural talent for picking up grains of rice and small peanuts.
Bring a Gift
Gifts are appropriate after signing a deal or finishing a tough negotiation. Rice wine (bai jiu), red wine, and expensive Chinese or U.S. brand cigarettes are appreciated (nearly every Chinese business man drinks and smokes). If no one else has brought a gift, give it to the host privately so that you don't embarrass the others.
If you know the guests, be willing to give a small toast to everyone–-otherwise, people may think you are trying to show off. Get up out of your chair and walk over to the big boss at the other side of the table to toast him personally; clink your glass lower than the lip of the others if they are in a higher position, older than you, or to show genuine respect. When others make a toast to you, toast them back.
Don't get drunk
Let the host lead the toasts, and don't be too proud. Saying "I've had enough" helps your host gain face.
Agree to be walked to the restroom
Don't get lost wandering around a 200 private-room restaurant.
Paying the Bill
Chinese love to fight over the bill. If you've been invited, your host will pay, and your thanks will be appreciated. If you feel the urge to pay, announce your intentions at the beginning, and avoid the fight.
BURT HELM is a senior writer for Inc. magazine. In 2013, his Inc. feature “After the Squeeze” was awarded the Stephen Barr Award for Feature writing, and his stories “After the Squeeze,” and “Turntable.fm: Where Did the Love Go?” received awards from Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Prior to Inc. he worked as a reporter for Bloomberg News and a department editor for Businessweek. He is a graduate of Yale University with a double major in Physics and English. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. @burthelm