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Chinese Business Dining Etiquette from Real Experience: The Unspoken Faux-Pas

VX | English

Chinese Business Dining Etiquette from Real Experience: The Unspoken Faux-Pas

Victoria X

Most business deals in China happen around the dining table.  Growing up attending Chinese business dinners, I often get asked by colleagues and friends about the “proper” business dining etiquette in China. While there are unspoken practices, it is important to remember that Chinese dining etiquette is fluid; it evolves with economic changes and varies by region and occasion. Unlike the deluge of etiquette guides out there which instruct you to act by the book, this collection is gathered through my experience dining with real Chinese businessmen/businesswomen in which etiquette is observed contextually and changes overtime. These are not the etiquette in the book but ones that are learned from interacting with other businessmen.  Etiquette, after all, are not protocols;  they are customs the society practices to show respect.  When in doubt, rely on your common sense and smile -- it trumps all proclaimed rules.  

Here are 11 unspoken faux-pas that you may not be aware of as a foreigner: 

1 | Sitting in the wrong seat

Like in many other cultures, seating arrangement is critical in China because it observes the social hierarchy.  The head of table and its planks are arranged in order of importance.  To avoid sitting in the inappropriate seat and thereby offending other guests, the rule of thumb is to wait until the host has seated you.

Where is the head of the table?

Since Chinese tables are round, the position of the head of the table is not obvious to cultural novices.  Traditionally, the head of the table is located across from where food is served, i.e. the door or the pathway; since the television has penetrated the Chinese daily life, however, the evolving custom is to locate the head of the table from across the television, so the head seat can have the best view of the screen.  This practice, of course, is contextual.   

Source: Chinasimplified.com

Source: Chinasimplified.com

Who sits at the head of the table?

The host does not necessarily sit at the head of the table.  The host usually arranges the person who is deemed the most authoritative and respected to take the head seat, such as a high-ranking government official or the honored guest.  The host may determine the status based on title, business relations, and age.  If you are offered to sit at the head of the table, it is not a bad practice to respectfully decline to show your humility.  

If you arrive early, the smartest thing to do is to sit in the waiting area until the rest of the party has arrived. 

Chinese restaurants place a side couch for early arrivals to sit while they wait for the rest of the party to arrive.

Chinese restaurants place a side couch for early arrivals to sit while they wait for the rest of the party to arrive.

Designated waiting area at a Chinese banquet room

Designated waiting area at a Chinese banquet room

2 | Not thanking for tea

Chinese take their tea etiquette seriously.  Thanking others for pouring you tea is a must.  You may thank verbally or by tapping your index and middle fingers on the table to avoid disrupting the conversation.  Same rule applies to alcohol.

The History of the Finger Tapping Custom
The finger-tapping custom to thank for tea originated from the anecdote that Qing Emperor Qian Long, while traveling incognito in Guangzhou, poured tea for one of his servants.  By formality, the servant must kowtow to show gratitude; but to avoid revealing the emperor’s identity, the servant curled his two fingers on the table instead to signify the act.  

3 | Pouring tea only for yourself

 Never refill your teacup without refilling for others’ first, even though others' cups are plenty-full.  It is a way to show deference, a Confucius teaching.  

Always pour tea for others before pouring it for yourself.

Always pour tea for others before pouring it for yourself.

4 | Drinking alcohol alone

Most westerners sip their beer or wine at their pleasure when they dine, but Chinese businessmen generally consider drinking alone unfriendly.  This is because, unlike its food pairing function in western cuisine, alcohol is served to celebrate the business relationship and to create a cordial atmosphere.  Alcohol, therefore, is never served alone as a beverage at business dinners.  Your actual beverage—usually tea, water, soft drinks, or juice—is served next to your alcoholic drink. Next time you pick up your wine glass, say “Cheers!”

Alcohol is always accompanied by another beverage.

Alcohol is always accompanied by another beverage.

5 | Not chugging when you gan-bei (干杯)

“Gan-bei”, the Chinese word of toast, literally means “dry the glass.”  When you have been “gan-bei,” it is often considered disrespectful if you do not empty your glass, unless you have an acceptable excuse, such as being a woman.  

"Let's ganbei, brother!"

"Let's ganbei, brother!"

6 | Sticking your chopsticks into your rice

 Most travel guides tell you not to stick your chopsticks into your rice at a 90-degree angle because it resembles the joss sticks Chinese stick onto their ancestor altar—a symbol of death.  It is actually frowned upon if you stick chopsticks into the rice at any angle.  The chopstick rest is there for a reason.  Use it. 

Source: blog.getnarrative.com

Source: blog.getnarrative.com

Sticking your chopsticks into the rice bowl resembles the incense Chinese use to pay respect to their ancestors.

Sticking your chopsticks into the rice bowl resembles the incense Chinese use to pay respect to their ancestors.

7 | Shoveling rice v. picking up rice

The Chinese have a different rice-eating etiquette than the Japanese.  While the Japanese hold their bowl in front of their chest and pick up the rice using their chopsticks, the Chinese shovel the rice into their mouth with their chopsticks.  While it may not be rude to eat rice the Japanese way, you might want to keep the difference in mind.

Japanese pick up rice with chopsticks from the bowl (Source: JapanesePod101.com)

Japanese pick up rice with chopsticks from the bowl (Source: JapanesePod101.com)

Chinese shovel rice into their mouth.

Chinese shovel rice into their mouth.

8 | Taking food before the head of the table

Naturally the food is served first to the head of the table.  It is best to wait until the head of the table has taken food from the freshly arrived dish to respect his/her seniority, even if the head of the table is still busy with other food.  The exception, of course, is if the head of the table offers you to go first as a gesture of respect. 

Source: Chinasimplified.com

Source: Chinasimplified.com

Sometimes others will personally serve the food directly on your plate.  Try not to refuse the food, even if you do not like the food.  

9 | Cherry-picking food or taking food from the back of the plate 

I know I know, you really want a specific part of the chicken, but Chinese consider cherry-picking food improper.  Never flip the food around to find the piece you want.  Just pick whichever piece is in front of you.  It is best not to pick the pieces from the farther end of the plate when there are plenty of pieces facing you towards the front of the plate.  You don’t want others to think that you are selfish and taking the best parts away from others.

Always take food from the side towards you.

Always take food from the side towards you.

10 | Not using serving chopsticks (公筷)

Since the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in China in 2003, there has been an increased awareness of public health, since more than half of China’s population now resides in densely populated cities. The campaign has since effectively pushed for the use of serving chopsticks – the separate pair of chopsticks used to carry food from the dish to your plate, but not to your mouth.  This reduces the risk of contagion existed in the traditional practice – taking food from the dish with the same chopsticks you use to put food into your mouth. 

Hong Kong's campaign for the use of serving chopsticks after the outbreak of SARS.

Hong Kong's campaign for the use of serving chopsticks after the outbreak of SARS.

At the more upscale restaurants, two pairs of chopsticks, differentiated by colors, are placed at each place setting.  The outer ones are the serving chopsticks while the inner ones are for private use.  Other restaurants place the serving chopsticks for each dish instead of for each guest, so remember to put the serving chopsticks back on the dish when you finish. 

Serving chopsticks on the outside, private chopsticks on the inside

Serving chopsticks on the outside, private chopsticks on the inside

11 | Rejecting talks of personal matters

 Unlike western businessmen who focus strictly on business in business meetings, Chinese businessmen love inquiring about personal matters such as your background and family as a way to build guanxi (relationships).  This is the reason why Chinese love arranging business meetings at hotel cafes or restaurants instead of the office – to create a more casual and cordial environment.  The culture of privacy is not as strong in China as it is in the West (yet).  If you are uncomfortable talking about your personal matters, you may answer it tersely and quickly direct the conversation back to business.  Chinese may not be used to you telling them directly that you prefer not to talk about your private matters; they might perceive the move as being disagreeable, or they might suspect you are hiding something fishy.

You can always deflect the question with an awkward laugh.

You can always deflect the question with an awkward laugh.

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