Meals are part of the meeting sequence of doing business in China. Be prepared for two-hour lunches and three- to six-hour dinners, sometimes followed by a few hours of karaoke.
This is a time when both sides ostensibly are relaxing but are actually trying to get to know each other. Meals are not just a way of showing hospitality. They are an extension of the meetings process itself, and to navigate them, you need to be aware of what your host is trying to convey, and you need to be receptive, appropriate and clear in your responses.
It is important to be friendly, but you are not there to entertain them. It is about business. When in doubt, reverse the situation and think about it in terms of someone from China showing up on your doorstep, asking about doing some business.
Wait to be seated by your host. This is a very political decision and will give you clues as to each person’s status. The head seat is the one facing the entrance to the room. You should either be in the seat of honor, at the head, or to the right or left of the most senior (powerful/respected) person. This could be your host or some senior government official who is there to give face to you and your host.
The concept and practice of face will be dealt with in a future article, as it is complex.
The seating signifies the pecking order, with those closest being the most powerful. One exception, the seat opposite the head can also signify a position of power. As soon as the meal starts, it will be obvious who is in charge, as they will speak first.
Your interpreter will sit next to you to facilitate conversation. Make sure your interpreter notes the seating arrangement. When you are the host, you can then direct your guests to the right seats. Like everywhere else, people get miffed if they are put in the wrong seat.
There will be an exchange of cards just before things start with those who you have not met before. Do not be surprised if someone starts talking to you about some other project they would like you to get involved with. Remember the 1,000 ways of saying no without saying it.
If you are not at the head or sitting to the left or the right of the head seat, something is wrong. Say you need to use the restroom and ask your intermediary (the person coordinating your China efforts) to direct you to the restroom. This should be a prearranged signal between the two of you that you need to talk, and you should immediately ask them what is going on.
Under no circumstances should your intermediary sit in a higher position than you, as this signifies that they are in control of the situation, not you. On the other hand, do not allow your intermediary to be put in a poor position or asked to sit at another table or in another room. This is often used as a tactic to see how you react. If you see them trying to separate you from your intermediary, immediately say that you need to sit with your “good friend” and offer to go with them to the other table or next room. If their position at the table is poor, tell your host that you need to sit close to your “good friend” and that you are happy to move. This is very important, as it signifies the strength of the relationship between you and your intermediary, and that a divide-and-conquer strategy will not be useful. It also preserves the face (standing) of your intermediary, who will be grateful for the show of respect. If the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction, you should return to your seat and be polite, but reserved. Your host and everyone at the table will be aware of your change in attitude, and the next move will be up to them.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the dinner will be in a private room, the table will be round and a lazy Susan will be used to circulate the dishes brought in by the staff. Dinner begins when your host either starts eating or urges you to start eating.
Where and what you eat is an indication of how you are being regarded. A rule of thumb is that ornately decorated restaurants and seafood are the usual signs (expensive) that they are treating you well. Ironically, for a country which is obsessed with food, the most beautiful restaurants do not always offer the best food. Often, as everywhere else, the best is found in local more modest establishments.
A great conversation starter is to ask where the best (fill-in-the blank, with your favorite Chinese food) can be had locally. Generally a lively discussion will be had between all at the table. Be aware that your next meal will probably be at the designated restaurant.
Generally everything will be spectacular, if somewhat different. Try everything, but other than tasting it, do not feel compelled to finish anything you do not care for. The wait staff will replace your plate whenever it becomes full with things you have put aside. The number of dishes will be overwhelming and are brought out as soon as they are prepared, because that is when they taste best. Be aware, it can lead to situations where you are offered cake before the meat and fish dishes have arrived.
Official banquets tend to follow Western protocols a little more rigidly. They have a misplaced concern for appearing “correct,” and generally the food is, at best, average. The Chinese find our regimented approach to courses interesting, but if you like variety, the Chinese style is a hands-down winner. The often random order of the dishes should not be mistaken for casualness. Eating is serious in China, and every detail will have been carefully arranged.
The newest dishes will be put on the lazy Susan and circulated to the head of the table. If you are not at the head of the table, resist the temptation to spear something as it goes by. Wait until the person at the head has taken some first or offered it to you. Eat what you like, but refrain from taking the last bite from a dish, as it means the host did not order enough and another plate will appear shortly. Do not be surprised when, after 30 dishes, you are offered rice or noodles and/or soup. It is customary in many places to make sure no one goes away hungry. Fruit is the last thing which will be served.
Use chop sticks if you can, but if it is a struggle, ask for a fork and knife. When taking something from a dish, use a utensil which you are not eating with to serve yourself from the communal plate. You will generally find a host of extra utensils around you, and the staff, who are usually very are attentive, will replace anything you will need for a subsequent dish.
The Chinese place one corner of their napkins under their plates to hold it down, and the rest is used to cover their lap. It is actually quite efficient and does away with the need to figure out what to do with your napkin every time you stand for a toast.
If someone sitting next to you puts something on your plate, they are doing you an honor. Note something they seem to like and reciprocate.
If you are full, leave things on your plate, or you will find the lazy Susan being vigorously circulated in your direction and/or your neighbor will start filling your plate for you.
In China, it is customary to toast happy occasions. Your host might have other things on their mind as well; getting you tipsy and seeing how you react, creating drinking camaraderie or getting you off your game as a prelude to the next day’s meeting.
There are four toasting choices: tea, beer, wine and hard liquor. If you were not the shot drinking king of your fraternity, and even if you were, it might be best to refrain from hard liquor. The Chinese drink “white liquor” (think white lightning), which varies in proof from 80 to 140. Once you start, expect to drink two or more shots with everyone at the table. It is acceptable to toast people with tea, but you are going to have to work a little harder in terms of small talk.
It is customary for everyone at the table to toast the leaders and the honored guests, and it is considered very kind if you reciprocate. If there was someone who rubbed you the wrong way at some point, make a point of toasting everyone except them. Do not forget to toast your intermediary, and make sure you publicly praise their efforts and help.
People smoke at the table throughout the meal in China. Think the mid-1960s in the United States, where most place settings had their own ash tray. The difficulty is that unlike the meeting, dinner is supposed to be where everyone can relax, and if you’re a diehard nicotine fan, giving up your cigarettes is not relaxing. Best-case scenario, they will remember your remarks about “allergies” at the meeting and keep it to a minimum.
Next: Small talk, toasts, karaoke and courtesy.