The etiquette of business dining in China

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Meals and banquets are an essential aspect of doing business in China, used as a setting to form business deals, build relationships and show respect. Some of the practices associated with dining in China may vary from place to place. However, you can become familiar with several standard dining etiquette elements before venturing to China to conduct business.

Seating arrangements

As with the seating arrangements for business meetings in China, the most honoured guest sits on the side of the table furthest away from the door, positioned at the middle of the table, with the second most crucial person seated next to them and so on, in descending order of importance. This means the host will generally sit at the middle of the table on one side, with the honoured guest seated directly opposite. Be sure to arrive on time and wait to be told where to sit.

Table Manners

Dining etiquette in China can be more ritualised than in many western cultures, and the protocol can vary according to the level of formality.

Most Chinese business meals are banquets, often with many dishes on offer. Please wait for your host to start eating before you begin to do so, and never take the last piece of any dish, instead showing honour by offering it to others. It is considered good manners to serve others before serving yourself and to try everything you are done without showing displeasure.

While it can be acceptable to ask for western cutlery in some major cities, it is best to master using chopsticks, as this is the tradition in China. As most dishes will come with their serving chopsticks, your chopsticks should not be used to take food from shared plates. If no serving chopsticks are provided, you may need to ‘reverse’ your chopsticks to take food from communal dishes, using the blunt ends rather than the end in your mouth. Your chopsticks should be used to eat everything on your plate and can be used to cut (rather than spear) more significant bits of food. They should be returned to the chopstick rest when you pause for a drink or to speak.

Rather than consuming rice off a plate, savouring the grain from a bowl is commonplace. As you hold this in your hand, it is pretty appropriate to lean forward and use your chopsticks to guide the morsels towards your mouth.

However, lifting plates from the table to eat is not acceptable.

Praise the food and your host’s good taste throughout the meal, leaving business matters aside and be sure to thank them at the end.

Toasting and drinking

The host will usually make a toast at the start of a meal, and if you are the honoured guest, you may be required to reciprocate soon after or at the end of the meal. It is customary to raise a glass in salute of the host and those present, wishing them good health and prosperity. A toast also acknowledges the business venture that has gathered everyone together.

A toast of “ganbei” means “cheers” or “bottom’s up” and it is customary to say “youyi” before you start eating or drinking, which means “here’s to friendship”.

When drinking, never refill your glass; refill your neighbours, and they will replenish yours.

The bill

It is standard practice for whoever has invited you to the meal to pay the bill, and you should not offer to leave a tip, as this is not standard procedure in China and is technically illegal.

Business cultures in China operate differently from those in Europe and America, so carving out time for learning all of the essential behaviour can drastically improve business relationships with companies from this part of the world. China is a country of many customs and etiquette when it comes to meals and banquets. It is essential to take the time to understand the local rules so that you can make an impression on potential partners and clients. This will help strengthen your position in a business negotiation. Pay attention to how you are expected to act during meals or banquets, who is allowed to initiate conversations, who should pick up the tab for given gatherings, and other relevant details. Further research into specific business dining etiquette practices related to your particular business type may also be necessary.

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