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An etiquette expert shares her tips for behaving at a Chinese business dinner

Founder of Institute Sarita Sara Jane Ho.

While business meetings are common among the workplace in Australia, most of the conversation around business in China takes place outside the office.

Business Insider recently spoke to Sara Jane Ho, Harvard graduate and founder of China’s first high-end boutique finishing school Institute Sarita, who said that “Chinese banquet luncheons or dinners are a must” in China’s business scene.

“In Asia, especially China, a lot of building relationships is done outside of the office or meeting and alcohol is the common social lubricant — particularly in Northern China or in second and third tier cities and particularly amongst men,” said Ho.

The Better-quette spokesperson for Booking.com said that business meetings are usually held in private rooms in a formal Chinese restaurant where any conversations can be held in confidence. Each party will usually bring an entourage of around four to five people who sit at a round table while discussing business over dinner.

But while there are obvious rules surrounding dinner etiquette, there are also things foreigners should be mindful of when sitting down for dinner with their Chinese counterparts, whether it be how they toast or who is seated first.

Here are her rules for doing business over dinner in China.

Seating

The host sits in the seat directly facing the door and the guest of honour sits to his right (historically the left side was the honourable seat, but given globalisation, Chinese commonly use the right now). The guest of honour’s seat is identified by a single more elaborate place setting such as a fancier or higher napkin fold. So long as the two most senior from each party are side by side, the rest seat themselves usually in rank next to their superiors. Chinese style likes to keep different parties clear (whether families sitting around the dinner table or companies).

Ordering

The host’s assistant should pre-order the menu and the host will usually ask the guest to order their favourite dishes, but guests demur to the host since he will be paying the bill. As a guest, you should only order if the host insists three times that you choose a dish (yes, you should defer at least three times before giving in), and then just choose one or two of your favourite dishes, do not take over the ordering. Don’t get frustrated if your host keeps putting food onto your plate and don’t be obliged to finish it – it is their way of looking after you.

Cutlery

Your table setting may include two sets of chopsticks to the right of your plate; the outer pair should be used to take food from the Lazy Susan common dish to your own plate, and the inside pair (closest to your plate) should be what you use to put that food in your mouth. The heavy silver spoon that is sometimes placed with the chopsticks is used to scoop common food — never bring it to your mouth or use it to drink soup! Meals can last up to 3 hours, especially in Beijing.

Toasting

Chinese toasting is the most mystifying protocol to Westerners. Red wine is poured very minimally into your wine glass – enough to fill a shot because it should be taken as a shot. After the host opens the meal with a toast (usually a few positive words about your existing or imminent collaboration) guests may start eating, and after the first course is served it is not uncommon for a Chinese person to stand up in the middle of the meal (no matter how big or small the event) – interrupting the group conversation even – pick up his wine glass, and walk around the table to the most senior host to “toast” him.

The host will then pick up his red wine glass and stand up, clink glasses (the junior should always drop his glass to be lower), say “ganbei” (empty glass) and both would down their red wine like a shot. Some then raise the glass again to show it is empty and they have finished the alcohol, out of respect for the other. Sometimes, the senior person can say “suiyi” (at will) to indicate that you need not finish the wine.

Photo: Sara Jane Ho.

But even if you adhere to all the etiquette, you still run the risk of causing offence if you’re not mindful of “guanxi”.

The concept of “guanxi” is one that dates back to thousands of years and relates to the relationships between people and the principle of reciprocity — “the fundamental glue that has held society together”.

“Today this means who you know and what these people believe their obligations are to you – so it’s not just enough to amass business cards, but the power of guanxi is what each individual within your network will do for you,” says Ho.

“Guanxi is how things get done. Going hand in hand with guanxi is the concept of reciprocity. This is the exchanging of favours between individuals and groups. People will make requests of those with whom they have guanxi, and understand that they will need to return the favour when the time arises too.

“In a business meeting, a way to potentially damage your guanxi is to refuse a favour that is asked of you (you are the judge of whether it is within reason) or refuse to reciprocate. Another way to damage your guanxi is to do this publicly or in front of other people, because this would make the other person ‘lose face’ (mianzi).

“Face — losing face, saving face and giving face — is very important. For example confronting someone, putting him on the spot, arrogant behavior, losing your temper, or being disrespectful can cause a loss of face and damage any business relationship.”

NOW READ: An etiquette expert shares the 2 biggest mistakes foreigners make when doing business in China

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