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Features - Editor, 31 December 2008

Business Hospitality Etiquette



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A business trip to China is likely to include some form of entertaining and hospitality, so it is a good idea to become familiar with customs related to the social side of doing business in what is considered to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

While business breakfasts are popular in some western countries, this is not part of Chinese business culture. Business lunches are starting to become more popular, but by far the most popular occasions for business entertaining is an evening banquet or dinner, which will generally start around 6 pm and be held in a restaurant specializing in this type of entertaining. It is important that you be on time for a business dinner, or better still, make a point of getting there around fifteen minutes earlier than the stipulated time. Your hosts will already be there waiting to welcome their guests.

Bearing in mind that there is a seating etiquette based on hierarchy in Chinese business culture, you must wait to be seated. Generally the host will be seated in the middle of the table facing the entrance to the room. The most senior guest of honor for the occasion will sit directly to the left of the host with everyone else being seated in descending order of status. The host will declare the first toast, after which he will begin eating, signaling that the rest of guests may proceed with the meal.

Although all at the table may be involved with negotiating a particular business deal, business is never discussed during a meal. As many as twenty courses may be served at a dinner banquet, so try to eat small portions of each. Leave a little food on your plate as this is an indication that you have had sufficient – an empty place signals that the host has not provided you with sufficient food and is an insult to the host. A tea drinking ritual referred to as ‘yum cha’ establishes a rapport between all parties involved. This may take place before a business meeting or during a meal. As your cup is emptied, it will be refilled, so if you do not want a refill, leave some tea in your cup.

Try to master the art of eating with chopsticks as this will please your host. When you finish eating, place your chopsticks on the table or on a chopstick rest which is usually provided at restaurants. Never place your chopsticks parallel on top of your bowl as this is considered to bring bad luck, as is dropping your chopsticks. Some of the items served as delicacies may be foreign to the western palate, but whether or not you can identify what is on your plate, it is polite to sample each item.

Alcoholic drinks form part of the dinner and are enjoyed by all and, unless some medical condition prevents you from taking alcohol, you will be expected to join in. Often three glasses will form part of your place setting at the table. One is for your drink of choice which you will use when there is any toasting taking place, the second is a wine glass and the third a shot glass for a potent Chinese liquor called ‘wu liang ye’ or ‘maotai’. The host will offer the first toast, which will be followed by others sporadically throughout the meal. If you do not drink alcohol, it is acceptable to participate in the toasting with the drink of your choice. Popular toasts include ‘ganbei’ (bottoms up) and ‘kai wei’ (starting the appetite).

The meal is considered to be complete when fruit is served and hot towels presented to each guest. The host will not initiate the departure of his guests and the fruit and hot towels are the cue for guests to prepare to leave. If you want to reciprocate yours host’s hospitality, do so with a banquet of the same value, never a more lavish occasion. With these simple tips you’ll be sure to impress business partners from Shanghai to Beijing, or wherever you are conducting business in China.

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