By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
You’d be hard pressed to identify a culture that isn’t proud of its cuisine or doesn’t make a big deal out of dining. But nowhere is this pride more evident than in the Chinese culture where dining is an art form that extends well beyond the food being consumed, and is the garden in which most relationships, both business and personal, can take root and flourish.
I quickly learned the basics: show respect by being on time; bring business cards with details in Chinese and present the card with both hands with the Chinese face up and to never write on someone else’s business card. I learned to greet my host first, not to overlook anyone, and to try to create small talk throughout the event by sticking to safe topics like sports, the weather, travel destinations, food and hometowns, sightseeing, how much I enjoy Chinese hospitality and their city (the one I’m currently dining in) and not to talk about business specifics unless my Chinese host raises the issue first. Lastly, I learned to anticipate the long-haul (Chinese dinners can extend well beyond three hours), stay engaged and animated throughout, and to never leave the meal first even if everyone else has finished eating except in an emergency.
Recently, I attended an official Chinese banquet for 7000 guests here in Southern California. It was a dinner recognizing the high achieving participants in the largest Chinese incentive travel group to ever visit the US. I was seated at the head table – a setting that sat 30 people! This honor and recognition was not given lightly.
The head table was populated by the group’s key executives. I was seated to the right of the chairman and the former Chilean President. How did this come about? It was in recognition of my relationship with the Chinese tourism industry that reaches back decades. Our hosts were simply giving “face” to a long-time friend. It was an honor and I was deeply appreciative.
Like most occasions, dining in the Chinese culture has its protocols. Take seating arrangements. Aside from indicating hierarchy, seating arrangements give “face” to attendees, especially those who are guests of the host. At a round table, the seat directly facing the door is usually reserved for the most important or highest level attendee—whether or not he or she is host. The second highest level attendee sits to the left of the highest and the third highest level attendee sits to the right of the highest level attendee. From there, the seating continues with left taking precedence over right when distance is equal.
Toasting also has its “rules of the road.” Usually, the host offers an initial toast to the group as a signal that the meal is starting. After several rounds of toasting, you should toast back at least once to the host and party. As you make your toast, be sure that your glass touches a lower part of the others’ glasses, taking care not to touch the bottom of anyone’s glass.
As the dinner winds down, take your cue from the host. He or she will signal an end; and, if you are invited to linger after dinner, take advantage of this additional chance to further develop the relationship in a social setting.
Finally, plan to bring a small, inexpensive gift, but with significant meaning and appropriate to the occasion, for the host and his party.
As China globalizes its economy and plays an ever larger role on the world stage, business in China will more likely be conducted in its secondary and tertiary cities where it likely will follow local traditions. It will be even more critical for you to develop ”guanxi” with your potential partners. Remember, to be successful doing business in China has little to do with your power point presentation, the company you represent or your wardrobe. It depends on the “guangxi” you forge and who you build this relationship with. And even though, today, expansive and expensive dinners are being scrutinized in China because of the perception that these can be a form of a bribe, there still remains no better venue for building a relationship than over a good dinner – no matter where you are, but especially in China.