Business and Chopsticks: 10 Chinese Dining Etiquette Tips for the Businessperson

Chinese Food - Business and Chopsticks: 10 Chinese Dining Etiquette Tips for the Businessperson

Business as usual--with food

Business happens over meals. The smell, the taste, and the social conviviality of meal times is naturally conducive to discussions and decisions made at chopstick range. Americans aren’t strangers to doing business over food, after all, no person is immune to hunger. According to a survey of 1400 CFO’s by Robert Half Management Resources, the restaurant was chosen most often as the location of a successful business meeting. With the economic expansion and rapid growth of China, business people are more commonly finding themselves doing business with Chinese partners. In Chinese culture, business and entertaining share a close relationship. My take? The concept of the family is likely the most important cultural more in the Chinese view. One key way the family relationship is enforced is at the dinner table. Food is shared, elders are deferred to, conversation is navigated with deft attention towards face, and traditions are upheld. Why wouldn’t other relationships, including business ones, model themselves after this core example?

Before we move on, you might also be interested in checking out these general Chinese business etiquette tips.

Full Disclosure

Some disclosure is in order–I’m speaking as a Cantonese influenced Chinese-American. Many people don’t know that China isn’t just one big country with all the same people. There’s several different provinces, each with their own regional personalities. Some of the ones you’ve likely heard of (with the knowledge gleaned from some of the more popular Chinese culinary styles in America) are Szechuan, Hunan, Shanghai, and Canton. Much of the food available in Chinese restaurants is actually Canton food. That’s because a majority of the Chinese people who immigrated to the US were from the Canton (actually, the correct term is Guangdong, but many Chinese Americans just say Canton) province. Canton people are prevalent in Hong Kong as well.

This means my advice might not be universally applicable in all regions of China. As always, learning on your feet is always required and having a local friend to guide you is infinitely useful. However, these tips should help the uninitiated conduct a successful business meeting over at a meal.

Success During the Meal: Chinese Business Edition

  1. Eating family style – To Chinese people, you always eat as a family. That includes business. Sharing food communally is a way of reinforced relationships and the dynamics of the group. Keep in mind that your food will arrive on platters that will be set in the middle of the table. Everyone takes turns taking food from the central platters and putting it on their own individual plates. Expect to share everything that’s ordered.
  2. Showing respect to elders/rank – Always show deference to those older than you or with greater rank. Chinese people place an extraordinary amount of importance on respecting elders and those with seniority. Be extra polite to them and insist they take their share of food before you do. There’s no faster way to be labelled rude than to disrespect your elders. You can credit this cultural tic to centuries of Confucianist influence.
  3. Yes might mean no – Chinese people don’t like to be direct. Sometimes, this means they will say yes to things you’re saying when they are really thinking no. In China, the concept of ‘saving face’ is very important. They won’t directly say no to avoid direct confrontation. This means you need to pay attention to body language and conversational flow. If they say yes, but constantly try to steer the conversation away from that topic, it likely means they disagree at least partially. You can overcome this by probing with questions that they can answer positively. Just keep in mind that Chinese people also dislike sharing too much information.
  4. Lively eating – Eating with your mouth open, lifting the bowl/plate to shovel food directly into your mouth, slurping hot noodles, and clanging your chopsticks against the ceramic isn’t looked down upon like in Western culture. Be prepared for it, but they probably won’t hold it against you if you choose to eat the way you’re used to.
  5. Don’t be too assertive – In Eastern cultures, Americans have a bit of a reputation as being rude and pushy. At its root, it’s a cultural difference. Americans are used to being much more direct while Chinese people value a more indirect route. This indirectness is evident in multiple areas. In fact, in traditional Chinese dances circular movements are admired as the most beautiful.
  6. Let others take food first – To be polite, say no. Specifically, you will likely receive multiple remonstrations to be the first to take the food. This is a mistake (and a trap for the polite-minded foreigner). You do not want to be the first to take food. Always insist your hosts take some food first. They might ask you many times. Do not lose your resolve–continue to insist they eat first. If they forcibly put food on your plate, keep insisting that you will wait for them to take the first bite because you don’t want to be rude. This rule holds true for many things in China, gift giving is another one. A guest that shows almost overbearing amounts of consideration for the host’s generosity is a guest that is polite.
  7. Tea with your meal – Tea comes with every meal. Water does not. From my own understanding, it has to do with maintaining harmony in your body. You drink hot things when you eat hot food. Cold and hot are conflicting opposites, yin and yang. However, this is a bit of an older belief. Western culture has spread throughout the world, so its highly probable that no one will care if you have a glass of ice water with your meal.
  8. Stay dignified – If there’s one thing you should never forget, it’s dignity. Always maintain your composure and dignity. You are never ‘off the clock’ when you’re doing business in China. Emotional outbursts, drunken tirades, rants, and other emotions have no place during a meal. Stay polite, dignified, and be friendly (but not too friendly). Also, make sure to avoid discussions of politics. It can be a very awkward issue when you consider the state commanded and controlled government
  9. Be on time – Chinese people may be  and often are late to meetings. Don’t take it personally. It’s an accepted part of Chinese culture. However, punctuality is also regarded highly. Being on time can garner you some respect–it shows a bit of consideration for your host.
  10. Family names first – A minor point, but remember that family names come first, then the individual name. The importance of the family, remember? It’s not a bad idea to call people Mr. [Family Name] until they tell you otherwise.

Oh and here’s a bonus tip: No matter what I’ve said, every human being is an individual. These things might or might not be true depending on the person you’re dealing with. Plans never survive first contact with the enemy–adapt to the situation at hand and you’ll find yourself with a truly successful business meeting.

Additional Resources

I also highly recommend, as both an educational and entertaining read, Blunders in International Business by David Ricks.

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