At IBMH, daily interactions with Chinese businesspeople have taught us about their culture and values. But if you are planning on starting a commercial relationship in the furniture and door hardware industry, you should know that business isn’t always done in an office. In fact, many business deals are sealed in restaurants. In order to be successful and close a deal with your local partners or providers, you need to understand the protocol you should follow at these business lunches or dinners in China.
It is at these business meals that the Chinese manage the concept of mianzi or “face”; in other words, the level of reputation that a person has socially.
What to do at a business meal with partners in the furniture and door hardware industry in China
Where to sit?
Facing these types of business lunches or dinners in China requires a good understanding of protocol, starting with the seating at the table, which is normally round.
- • The host sits at the center, facing the door.
- • The other diners take their place according to their hierarchical rank.
- • As a guest, you should wait to be told where to sit. This will probably be to the right of the host.
- • Wait for them to sit down first, and let them be the ones to start eating. You should only start if they invite you to initiate the meal.
On the table
Business lunches or dinners in China usually consist of several dishes (about a dozen) distributed in the center of a table with a Lazy Susan.
The polite thing to do for your Chinese hosts is:
- • Try a little of every dish, even the ones you dislike.
- • Refusing a dish may be taken as an offense, as the Chinese are very proud of their gastronomy.
These meals are begun with soup, which will be served in the bowl at your place setting and can be eaten by sipping or (preferably) with a spoon. Next, the rice will be served, of which you will find two types:
- • Steamed white rice (mǐfàn): This rice, more compact, is served in a small bowl and should be eaten with chopsticks. The process consists of using them to take a piece of meat, fish or vegetables from the serving dishes in the center, resting them on the bowl, and then eating the bite without sucking on the chopsticks.
- • Fried rice (chǎo fàn): This is a much looser rice and, consequently, difficult to manage with chopsticks. It is served in a dish in the center of the table, so you will use your own spoon to serve yourself and eat it directly from your plate.
As for the last bite, it’s best to leave it and not be the one to eat it.
It is advisable to know how to use chopsticks. This detail will demonstrate that you value the customs of your hosts and will be a point in your favor.
Once the meal is finished, you should:
- • Place them horizontally over your bowl, or
- • On the chopstick rest to your right, also horizontally
- • Over your plate (as is our Western custom), or
- • Sticking into the rice (this is considered bad luck)
Drinking at business lunches or dinners in China
Alcohol: yes or no?
Before we answer this question, you should know that:
“The amount of alcohol that is consumed at business lunches or dinners in China is extremely high.”
From the first moment, you need to make your position clear: whether you will or will not drink alcohol.
If you decide NOT to drink alcohol
You should give a good reason not to drink (health reasons, pregnancy, religion, etc.). Your hosts will understand and respect your decision.
Note: If you are not drinking and there is a toast, you should know that toasting with water is not a cause for any superstitions there.
If you decide you WILL drink alcohol
You need to accept the fact that you will be consuming every drink, from start to finish. This includes the strong rice liquor “baijiu”, and there is no option to quit halfway through a drink. Obviously, you need to know your limits well enough to keep your composure despite the alcohol consumption. In China, toasts are very ceremonious. When you shout “Ganbei” (the equivalent of “cheers”), you should empty your glass. If your host proposes a toast in your honor, it means they want to give you mianzi, and so the appropriate way to respond is to clink your glass slightly beneath theirs.
Note: Alcohol is only drunk for toasts; during the rest of the meal, they drink hot tea or nonalcoholic beverages.
Now you know that receiving an invitation to one of these business lunches or dinners in China will always be a favorable gesture, provided you know how to handle it correctly. By respecting their customs, you can strengthen your relationships with your local partners and thus be successful in your negotiations.