In business careers almost everywhere, it’s not so much what you know as who you know that will get you ahead.
Chinese business culture follows this rule almost to a fault.
Getting a “good” job in China often depends more on your QQ contacts than your IQ.
With a country of 1.4 billion people, many of whom are highly educated, making friends with the right people is even more important than quality schooling. And what better way is there to connect and make friends than to go out together for a nice meal and a few drinks?
In the West, business is business, with friends aside. In China, like in so many other aspects of life, they do things a little differently.
At some point, you may be invited to a business dinner, and without a little preparation, you might end up making a fool of yourself, or worse, embarrassing your colleagues.
Here is some advice to help you survive the (in)famous Chinese business dinner, and why you should learn to embrace this most Chinese of business practices.
Even if you’ve had a dinner meeting back home, you may be unfamiliar with the Chinese way of the table.
- Is it okay to use my 筷子 (kuài zi) - chopsticks to serve myself from the main dish?
- Is it impolite to discuss business at the table?
- Is a nice box of imported chocolate an appropriate gift for the group?
- What does 干杯 (gān bēi) mean?
Before I answer these questions, I’ll give you a little bit of my history with business dinners in China.
My first Chinese business dinner
At first, going out for dinner and drinks with purely professional associates seemed to me like something straight out of Mad Men. Coming from 21st century America, I thought getting hopped up on overpriced coffee together was as personal as business got.
So when I was invited to a business partner’s family restaurant for a professional meeting over beers, I had no idea what to expect. Even with a few first-timer faux pas, everything turned out fine and my relationship with my associates, both in and out of the office, was ever the better for it.
This is the true power of the Chinese business dinner.
In just one night the meal turns coworkers into friends, and business associates into close, personal allies.
After a few shared dishes, and more than a few rounds of 啤酒 (pí jiǔ) - beer, my once stiff and formal colleagues transformed into warm friends, and our professional life blossomed in a way I had never experienced in an American company.
Of all the Chinese products exported to the U.S., I wish they would send over a little bit of the business dinner tradition.
Still, the art of the successful dinner requires a little training.
At my first dinner, I was fortunate to have very patient and good-natured colleagues who were willing to laugh off my low-brow, Laowai lack of manners.
But not everyone is quite so lucky.
Here's what went wrong at my first dinner, and how you can avoid them.
1. Dress appropriately.
I like to get dressed up for events, so when my business partner told me the dress code was casual, I opted for business casual.
When I showed up in a jacket and slacks, and everyone else was in jeans and T-shirts, I got a lot of good-natured jabs about digging for the boss’ job. If I hadn’t been so visibly embarrassed, they might have thought me a show-off.
Do yourself a favor, if they say formal, wear a suit or dress. If they say casual, just pull out your nice jeans and that polo your uncle got you for your birthday.
You know, the one you don’t mind spilling something on.
2. It’s okay to say no to cigarettes.
You will be offered cigarettes. It just happens.
I didn’t smoke at all when I was first came to China, but I wanted to be sociable, so I accepted the offer of a fancy Furongwang brand cigarette 香烟 (xiāng yān) from my coworker after dinner.
When I recovered from the coughing fit, I saw I had scorched a small hole in the tablecloth, which I promptly hid with my rice bowl.
If you don’t smoke already, follow your mom’s advice, just say “不要, 谢谢 (bú yào, xiè xie)!" - "I don't want any, thanks!"
3. Wait to be seated.
Traditionally, business dinner seating is planned according to social status. Alternatively, the seating arrangements could be made to encourage harmony at the table, just like at a well-planned wedding.
My first dinner didn’t have a set seating arrangement, but ten minutes into the meal I wished it had. I made the mistake of sitting next to the office chatterbox, who spoke very little English.
Despite my willingness to add to the conversation, I just didn’t understand what she was saying. We both would have had much more fun at a different seat. Fortunately, her incessant jabbering gave me ample time to enjoy the lovely feast on the lazy susan.
When it’s time to sit, don’t jump to the nearest seat, politely ask where they want the 外国人 (wài guó rén) - foreigner seated.
4. Never challenge your Chinese host to a drinking contest.
This is not from personal experience, but from a friend of mine in Beijing. Coming from northern England and being almost two meters tall, my Liverpudlian friend thought his liver would be the strongest at the table.
Two hours later it took five men to peel him off the floor and shovel him into a taxi while his opponent proudly, albeit unsteadily, strutted off to the bathroom to empty his bladder for another round.
Even though everyone else at the dinner got a big laugh out of the drunken Englishman, you probably don’t want to be that guy.
Follow these four pieces of advice, and you should be halfway to a pleasant and productive dinner.
Your Chinese dinner questions answered
To get you all the way there, let’s go back to the questions from earlier.
The answer to the first three questions is yes. The fourth requires a bit more explanation.
干杯 (gān bēi) is usually heard after someone at the table makes a toast. It literally translates to “Dry Cup”. It’s the Chinese call to tip your bottoms up, scull it, down it, slam it back, or whatever colorful colloquialism you use in your home country to mean, “Finish your drink”.
As for your own toast, just keep it short and sweet and end it with a hearty “干杯 (gān bēi)!" so everyone can get down to the real meat of the dinner: drinking.
Learn the most common Chinese toasts in this article.
Let me be clear on one point: you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to.
I’ve opted out of drinking several times, and my associates didn’t think twice about it. Simply citing an allergy will usually get the point across in a polite way: 我对酒精过敏 (wǒ duì jiǔ jīng guò mǐn).
Women are usually not expected to drink alcohol. However, if you’re a man who refuses drink, you might get a bit of a hard time for it. Even so, don’t worry, after a few toasts nobody will even notice you’re drinking Sprite instead of Tsingtao.
With that being said, drinking is a very important part of the business dinner.
Often in more traditional circles, a man’s professional success can be partly related to his ability to hold his liquor, so when you meet a Chinese man with a jolly round beer belly sticking out of his jacket, it’s probably best to address him as 老板 (lǎo bǎn) - boss.
One last tip for impressing your boss and coworkers
I’ll leave you with one lucky piece of knowledge not many 老外 (lǎo wài) - foreigners possess, but which is sure to put a nice touch to your first dinner meeting.
When 老板 (lǎo bǎn) , or anyone else, pours you a drink, don’t forget to knock two fingers on the table to say, "谢谢 (xiè xie)" - thank you.
Your two knuckles on the table represent two knees bent on the ground in respect to the pourer. It’s a nice touch that shows you respect Chinese culture, and your hosts are sure to appreciate it.
Despite any of the details of the dinner, your main objective should always be to have fun with your new 同事 (tóng shì) - coworkers. After your toasts are said and your cups are dried, I’m sure you’ll find your colleagues are nearly as close as family, with your 老板 (lǎo bǎn) - boss, of course, as the father.
Remember to enjoy yourself, mind your manners, and you’ll be in business!
But seriously though, don’t challenge your boss to a drinking contest.
If you have a helpful or funny story about a business dinner in China, leave it in the comments! We love to hear from you!
Bonus Chinese business reading