How to behave with your Chinese client at dinner

Having dinner with a Chinese client can be intimidating especially if you are not conversant with their cuisine. Add a foreign language and chopsticks to the mix, and things can go downhill fast.

On the contrary, a Chinese business dinner can go pretty well if you know how to behave. Below we discuss general etiquette rules including how to dress, what to order, how to speak, etc. We do not just want you to survive the dinner, but also bag that huge deal.

So, without further ado, here are the do’s and don’ts.

Things To Do

Dress like Your Host and Keep Time

In most cases, your Chinese client will be dressed in a suit, and you should also consider packing a power suit for the business dinner. In the rare case that the clients will be in jeans, you can dress the same way.

But just because you will be in jeans does not mean that you can get away with an unkempt appearance. Not at all. You should be well-groomed in case your client wants to show you off to his family and friends. Of course, you should also ensure you get to the dinner on time.

Carry Bilingual Business Cards

If you are looking to impress, bilingual business cards will help you a great deal. It does not matter whether your client is a fluent English speaker or not; you may meet other prospective clients that are not as conversant with the English language.

When handing over the card, hold it with both hands, and ensure that the Chinese side is at the top. Your client may also hand you their business cards. Accept the card with both hands and acknowledge the gesture with a smile.

Keep off Business Talk Unless the Client Starts It

However eager you may be, you should keep off business talk unless you are prompted to. The Chinese like to relax and have a good time after a long day’s work, and business talk is the last thing on their minds.

Staring your dinner with business may make you look too impatient, and this will definitely not work to your advantage. Take your time, enjoy your dinner, and know that once the drinks start flowing, nothing you agree about at this point is cast on stone.

Try Everything Offered To You

Well, this may sound strange but refusing any delicacy offered to you is considered rude. In case you do not want to try any of the dishes that you have been served, just push it to the side of your plate. You can also offer to serve others, and skip your plate if whatever is being eaten does not augur well with you.

Slurp and Belch

Yes, I can see you cringe already, but slurping and belching are actually allowed in Chinese dining. Doing so is a good indication that you are enjoying the foods and drinks that you have been offered.

Other Things You Should Know as You Prepare for the Dinner

What to Give and How to Receive Gifts from Your Host

Giving a gift to a client is particularly important, especially in cases where the business dinner marks the end of tough negotiations or the signing of a new deal. A gift does not have to be fancy- a bottle of white or red wine and a pack of expensive cigarettes will do.

Note that these gifts only apply if your client drinks or smokes, so be careful and do your research to ensure that you do not bring the wrong gifts for your client.

However, whichever gift you choose, make sure that it is not too expensive as this can be mistaken for bribing, especially where government officials are concerned. Other gifts to avoid include pricey watches, umbrellas, sharp objects, and candles. These items are often associated with rituals, while others are viewed as offensive in Chinese culture.

When receiving a gift, accept it with both hands just like in the case of a business card. A gift should not be opened immediately unless the person giving it tells you to do so.

What to Order

The formal banquet is an essential part of the deal-making process for the Chinese. Business people use formal dinners to unwind, build trust, and size one another.

Unless you are conversant with the menu, you should let your client order on your behalf. In case you have any special requirements as far as food is concerned, it pays to let your clients know in advance. Going to a meat restaurant when you are a vegetarian can be the start of a long and awkward dinner meeting.

If you decide to order for yourself, ensure that you do not order more food and drinks than necessary. Take your time to understand the menu and ensure those common delicacies are the bulk of what you order.

How to Behave During Formal Dinners

During formal dinners, you have to be extremely respectful. When you have to toast a drink, start with the eldest person on the table. Hierarchy is very important in Chinese culture, and the elderly are accorded a lot of respect. The second person to toast should be the company’s head. The rim of your glass should be below that of your seniors and clients as a sign of respect.

In case you have to make a speech, you also need to recognize all those who are present in order of hierarchy. If you are not sure about the order, address the audience generally but respectfully.

How to Behave at the Dining Table

On the table, you will in most cases find a bowl, chopsticks, a soup spoon, and a cup. Customarily, all dishes are washed using tea or hot water just before eating. So, before using the utensils, pour some tea into the cup and use it to clean the chopsticks inside the bowl. Swirl the drink in the bowl for a few seconds and empty whatever is left into the waste dish. Most times, the waste dish will be placed at the center of the table.

All foods, apart from soups, are eaten using chopsticks. You should never use your fingers to eat during a Chinese dinner.

Paying the Bill

With Chinese Clients, just like any other business dinners, the person who gave the invitation takes care of the bill. If your client is the one who invited you to dinner, you should let the client pay. In case you want to pay, make this clear from the start.

Your Chinese client will likely insist on paying the bill, so being clear from the beginning will be helpful. Even in cases where the client should be the one to pay the bill, offer to pay, and then thank the client several times when the offer is declined.

If you are the one paying the bill, your seat should face the door. Sitting while facing the door indicates that you are the VIP, and the bill is on you. Excuse yourself briefly to the bathroom and then settle the bill. This should be done secretly so that your client will be surprised that you have already sorted the bill when they offer to do so at the end of the evening.

Seat Order

The Chinese dinner comes with a seat order. Generally, the senior executives sit first while the rest follow. To be on the safe side, you should let your host sit first. This way, you do not get seated before your seniors do so.

Eating Rules

Just like with the seating order, the seniors and elders get to eat first. Also, remember not to eat everything on your plate. If you do, the Chinese will think that they did not feed you well, and more food will be added to your plate.

Things Not to Do

Drinking Too Much

Getting drunk on a business dinner is a no-no even when there is an open bar, and everyone seems to be drinking. That said, you should not turn down a client’s offer for a drink, and when you have to, do so politely.

To avoid drinking too much, take a break from drinking whenever possible. Once you have toasted the executives, toast everyone when a drink is offered. This way, you do not have to toast everyone individually with a fresh drink.

Keep Away from Politics

Politics is a thorny topic, especially when it touches on human rights, Tibet, and Taiwan. No matter how passionate you are about the political history of China, you are better off keeping off these topics. You should also keep off other controversial issues and concentrate on weather, family, and food.

Don’t Stick Chopsticks into the Bowl

Sticking chopsticks straight to the bowl is only reserved for funeral events. Doing this when you are dining with your clients can be quite offensive. You should also avoid tapping the bowl with chopsticks because, in the Chinese culture, this amounts to begging.

Conclusion

A business dinner is supposed to enhance relationships. As such, you should take this opportunity to know your Chinese client better on a personal level. This is also the reason why it is advisable to stay off business talks unless the client starts the topic.

There are many rules and regulations on how to behave during a business dinner with a Chinese client, but most errors can be forgiven if you are pleasant and respectful to the client.

Matthew Ryan

I'm Matthew Ryan, one of the guys behind MannersAdvisor.com I am passionate about the world of good manners, etiquette and proper behavior to have on any special occasion. Here I decided to share my passion with you!

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