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Chinese Meal Etiquette

2011-11-26 22:15 ChineseTime

The meal is an intrinsic part of doing business in China
 
Meals are part of the meeting sequence of doing business in China. Be prepared for two-hour lunches and three- to six-hour dinners, sometimes followed by a few hours of karaoke.
 
This is a time when both sides ostensibly are relaxing but are actually trying to get to know each other. Meals are not just a way of showing hospitality. They are an extension of the meetings process itself, and to navigate them, you need to be aware of what your host is trying to convey, and you need to be receptive, appropriate and clear in your responses.
 

It is important to be friendly, but you are not there to entertain them. It is about business. When in doubt, reverse the situation and think about it in terms of someone from China showing up on your doorstep, asking about doing some business.

 

 

 

Seating

 

 

 

Wait to be seated by your host. This is a very political decision and will give you clues as to each person’s status. The head seat is the one facing the entrance to the room. You should either be in the seat of honor, at the head, or to the right or left of the most senior (powerful/respected) person. This could be your host or some senior government official who is there to give face to you and your host.
 
The concept and practice of face will be dealt with in a future article, as it is complex.
 
The seating signifies the pecking order, with those closest being the most powerful. One exception, the seat opposite the head can also signify a position of power. As soon as the meal starts, it will be obvious who is in charge, as they will speak first.
 
 
Your interpreter will sit next to you to facilitate conversation. Make sure your interpreter notes the seating arrangement. When you are the host, you can then direct your guests to the right seats. Like everywhere else, people get miffed if they are put in the wrong seat.
 
There will be an exchange of cards just before things start with those who you have not met before. Do not be surprised if someone starts talking to you about some other project they would like you to get involved with. Remember the 1,000 ways of saying no without saying it.
 
If you are not at the head or sitting to the left or the right of the head seat, something is wrong. Say you need to use the restroom and ask your intermediary (the person coordinating your China efforts) to direct you to the restroom. This should be a prearranged signal between the two of you that you need to talk, and you should immediately ask them what is going on.
 
Under no circumstances should your intermediary sit in a higher position than you, as this signifies that they are in control of the situation, not you. On the other hand, do not allow your intermediary to be put in a poor position or asked to sit at another table or in another room. This is often used as a tactic to see how you react. If you see them trying to separate you from your intermediary, immediately say that you need to sit with your “good friend” and offer to go with them to the other table or next room. If their position at the table is poor, tell your host that you need to sit close to your “good friend” and that you are happy to move. This is very important, as it signifies the strength of the relationship between you and your intermediary, and that a divide-and-conquer strategy will not be useful. It also preserves the face (standing) of your intermediary, who will be grateful for the show of respect. If the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction, you should return to your seat and be polite, but reserved. Your host and everyone at the table will be aware of your change in attitude, and the next move will be up to them.
 
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the dinner will be in a private room, the table will be round and a lazy Susan will be used to circulate the dishes brought in by the staff. Dinner begins when your host either starts eating or urges you to start eating.
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