Interpersonal relationships are an indispensable part of doing business in China and dinners act as a springboard for establishing friendships, sharing ideas and cementing trust. Therefore mastering the art of Chinese dinner etiquette is essential for conducting successful business.
If two people cannot even eat a single meal together, how will they be able to converse as like minded fellows? – Confucius
If you have done business in China before, you may have found office environments and formal meetings are often full of unclear communication and partial truths. This is partially due to the rigid hierarchy that exists and the heavy scrutiny people feel as a result. People are often reticent because they fear causing inconvenience or loss of face to others. However, you will usually find they are much more forthcoming in a private setting accompanied by a delicious meal, plenty of drinks and good company. But in such a high context culture with so many unwritten rules, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are 10 Do’s and Don’ts to keep in mind.
- Taste a little of everything – Chinese hosts will constantly observe all their guests to see if they are happy and to check if they are eating the food provided. As a foreigner, you may also find your host wants to test your fortitude and manners. To ensure no-one is offended you should always try to eat a bit of everything. If you really cannot stomach certain dishes, do not flatly refuse but instead try and make an appropriate excuse, for example, you can base them on any health or religious restrictions you may have.
- Slurp your noodles or soup – in China (as well as many Asian countries) it is customary to slurp these dishes to signal your appreciation to the chef or host.
- Eat from your bowl and use your plate to discard bones, shells etc – putting food on a plate before eating is a very common mistake made by westerners and is seen as uncivilized.
- Stop eating and place your chopsticks down before speaking with someone – when talking with people, especially during formal dinners, it is very important to give them all of your attention. Similarly, you should not interrupt two people already in conversation.
- Tap against the table when people pour you tea – this custom is a silent way of saying thank you and has been practised in China for centuries. For example, if a dinner partner is engrossed in conversation with another guest, don’t interrupt by asking if they want more tea, just pour it. They will then acknowledge this kindness by tapping their bent index and middle fingers twice on the table, thus allowing them to say thank you without interrupting.
- Order plenty of dishes – if you’ve been to any dinners in China you will have noticed there is always an overabundance of food. The host’s duty is to make sure all the guests are full and satisfied. Being perceived as cheap or stingy is an extremely negative trait. Ensure that you order plenty of meat, fish and seafood as well as lots of drinks. Additionally, pay the bill privately rather than in front of everyone to avoid the ritualistic argument over the bill.
- When toasting lower your glass to people older or more senior than you – in hierarchical cultures such as China, this is essential to show respect and humility. This is done across all of society, for example, President Xi lowered his glass to Queen Elizabeth on a state visit to the UK in 2015. When toasting you may find people will compete to show how humble they are by lowering their glass almost all the way down to the table.
- Toast with each person at least once – this is done to give every person the proper amount of “face” or recognition, and if hosting, to show your generosity. Start with the most important person at the table and work your way down. These toasts should be done at intervals and not in quick succession, so take your time.
- Place the guest of honour or the person with the highest status in the best seat – where a person sits determines their place in the hierarchy and enables people to know how much face and respect they are due. In casual dinners, the host will usually sit facing the door (if there is no door insight, on the East side of the table) and have their most important guests flanking them with the rest in descending order. If it’s a formal dinner involving other companies or delegations, then the most senior guest will sit opposite the host with their most important associates next to them. The idea is that every person sits opposite their counterpart.
Tip: this can be a very useful indicator of the internal dynamics and structure of a company.
- Pour others people’s drinks before your own – ensure you refill other people’s drinks continually throughout the night regardless of whether they ask you to or not. Likewise, your drink will usually be filled continually by others throughout the night. If you want to refill your own remember to always offer a refill to others before helping yourself.
- Place your chopsticks upright in a bowl – this looks like the joss sticks used at funerals and therefore signifies death. This is the cardinal sin of Asian table manners. After eating simply place your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or diagonally across your plate or bowl.
- Request or expect to split the bill – the host will always pay for the entire dinner, but it is polite, indeed almost compulsory, to profusely argue that you should pay the bill yourself. This can sometimes appear to get quite heated but it’s just a regular part of East Asian culture. In both casual and formal dinners the guest is then expected to reciprocate by being the next person to invite them to dinner. Tipping is not expected and is still technically illegal.
- Seat people at the corner of the table – a sharp corner pointing towards someone has connotations of danger and is considered bad luck. This is one of the reasons why most dinner tables in China are round.
- Make any gestures with your chopsticks such as pointing or tapping – chopsticks can sometimes feel more like an extension of your fingers than conventional cutlery so this has unfortunately become a very common mistake among westerners.
- Dig around in the dishes to select the best pieces of food – it can be tempting to avoid bony meat or other ingredients that aren’t to your liking. This is sometimes likened to “grave digging” and is extremely poor manners.
- Eat too fast – Chinese dinners and banquets always have an enormous amount of food and your hosts will usually encourage you to eat as much as possible. The expectation of trying every dish means many foreigners will only have a light lunch so they have room. But all too often this results in them eating too quickly which is considered very uncivilised. So no matter how hungry you are, take your time and remember it is far more important to try a little of everything than it is to eat a lot.
- Criticise or comment on how strange some food appears to be – stinky tofu, chicken feet, coagulated blood, jellyfish etc maybe weird or even disgusting to you, but this is part of their cuisine and culture. Therefore any derogatory comments about such dishes will not be taken well by your dinner partners.
- Eat the last piece of anything – this is true in many cultures and is considered to be selfish and greedy. Additionally, in China, it is also considered bad luck. So no matter how tempted you may be, refrain from taking the last piece. The exception to this is if your host asks you to take the final piece, but you should still at least politely refuse once or twice before doing so to avoid being seen as too desperate.
- Discuss business during dinner – this may seem strange to some cultures but this is the golden rule of business dinners in China. Dinner is meant to cultivate relationships so that business can be done in the future. You are best advised to keep the conversation light by discussing family, travel, culture, food etc and avoid any controversial topics like politics or religion. Any talk of business won’t start until long after the meal has begun so be patient and wait for your host to begin.
- Finish all of your food – leaving an empty plate is considered offensive because it signals to your host that you’re unhappy with their hospitality. Simply leave a little there to show you are full and satisfied.
Remember these rules are taken more seriously by some rather than others so as with all social conventions your actual experiences will vary greatly.
Remember not to get too worried about making mistakes as you won’t be held to the same standards as locals. That being said the more polite and courteous you are the more ‘face’ you will give and the more respect you will earn. If you’re ever in doubt, the best option is to be as observant as possible and try to follow your dinner partner’s lead.