Nuance. Understanding it is a core skill of an experienced business person. The subtlety involved in business communication requires practice.
There are also many facets of Chinese hospitality. Customs range from more obvious practices to less common approaches. What might seem to you a small quirk in Chinese seating arrangement can have an unexpected bearing on your business relationship.
Without years of experience, Chinese culture might seem unaccessible. But, worry not! From customs related to gift giving in China to introducing best Chinese dishes, our cultural coaches have you covered.
To prevent simple cultural mishaps, let’s talk about Chinese hospitality customs.
Punctuality in China
Arriving on time is a sign of respect in most cultures. It shows consideration for everyone else’s time and indicates the value you place on the relationship. Similarly, punctuality in China is highly important for your business success. If possible, try to arrive early—ideally 10-15 minutes before any business meeting or dinner.
Gift giving in China
It might be surprising for Western people, but bringing presents for your business counterparts is an essential element of business etiquette in China.
Make sure to choose gifts properly because items can often be interpreted metaphorically—as symbols of your business relationship.
Symbolism in gifts
Giving a green hat to a man is not a good idea! A greet hat is a symbol of cuckolding—definitely not something you want to insinuate in a business relationship.
Other not particularly appropriate business gifts for China include: clocks, knives, scissors, and letter openers. They each carry a double meaning: clock stands for a funeral, and sharp objects indicate the idea of cutting ties—again, not a promising beginning of a lasting business relationship!
To send a positive message with your gift incorporate gold and red colours. They signal royalty and good fortune. Avoid white though— it’s associated with funerals.
Giving and receiving gifts in China
Bring presents when you go to China for business, and make sure to prepare gifts for Chinese business visitors when they arrive to your country.
Remember to inquire how many people will be present in a meeting—it’s a good idea to have something for everyone in the room. If this is not possible, give gifts to the most important people.
Don’t be surprised if your present is not accepted, or not opened right away. The culture of gift giving in China also covers gift receiving—being modest about receiving the gift is a part of it.
Want to make sure your gifts send the right message? Run your gift ideas past our cultural coaching experts!
Chinese business dinner etiquette
Business dinners can be an elaborate affair especially if you’re new to Chinese eating traditions.
Chinese sitting arrangement
The seat at the middle of the table, which will often be facing the door, is generally reserved for the guest of honor or the most senior member of the party.
The host will sit beside the guest of honor, to the left.
Other guests are typically seated in descending order of status. The further away from the central guest, the lower the importance of the person in the hierarchy.
Chinese seating etiquette is based on hierarchy, so always wait to be seated by the host. This will ensure you sit in the right place and sit a the right time.
Chinese dining table
On a typical Chinese dining table each guest will get:
their own cup, for tea,
a bowl on a small dish, for soup,
chopsticks, sometimes with a chopstick holder,
Learn to use chopsticks and the Chinese soup spoon. This will leave a good impression on your host, showing your respect and consideration for the Chinese culture.
Be prepared to sit at a round dining table—they are much more popular than rectangular or square ones.
In Western dining each person receives their own portion. In contrast, Chinese dishes are always shared, and presented in the center of the table.
Drinking alcohol and smoking in China
Banqueting and drinking alcohol are also a part of Chinese culture—many business deals are discussed and completed at the dinner table.
If you prefer not to drink alcohol, make sure you clearly let your host know, and, as common sense would suggest, make sure not to smoke in public places.
Chinese table manners and rituals
There is a lot to say to describe the table manners of China. We chose the most crucial pieces of advice to help you feel more at ease when dining with your business partners.
Know how much to eat.
Leaving an empty dish signifies that you were not given enough to eat. But, not touching your food is offensive as it implies you didn’t like the dish, so always make sure to sample everything you’re offered.
Similarly as many Western parents tell kids not to play with their food, the Chinese eating manners also discourage “digging”, or “searching” through their food. Doing it is sometimes called "digging one's grave" or "grave-digging" and is considered extremely poor manners.
Master your chopsticks.
Chopsticks should always be of the same length.
Hold your chopstick so that the ends are even. Why? Uneven ends evoke a connotation of coffind, which used to be built from uneven boards.
Do not leave chopsticks sticking upright out of dishes. Such dishes are typically offered for the dead, and the chopsticks in this position look similar to incense burnt to honour the ancestors.
Never chew on the ends of your chopsticks, even if they are plastic.
Don’t use chopsticks to move bowls or plates.
Pick the best Chinese dishes!
Ok, picking the best Chinese dishes is not a part of your Chinese table manners. But, it’s good to now what choices you could be faced with in a restaurant. Some of the most popular Chinese dishes include:
Sweet and sour pork
Gong bao chicken
Ma po tofu
Peking roasted duck
Dos and don‘ts of Chinese business dinner etiquette
Let’s add several more key lessons about Chinese table manners—this time in relation to the host of the event.
If you are invited to a formal banquet, the dishes should not be eaten up completely. Why? Leaving empty plates gives the host an impression they haven’t provided enough food, andaren’t good banquet-organisers.
It’s considered rude to begin eating or drinking before the host. Why? Because of the hierarchical table arrangements we learned about above!
After dining, the guests should leave when the host has left the table. Why? The host is the one who dictates the proceedings. Once they leave, the dinner is formally over.
Don’t give tips. Tipping in China is generally considered an insult. Why? It implies the recipient is of a poor background and needs money.
Obey the correct dress code. Why? As in other countries, it shows your understanding of local customs. In China, business people usually dress in a smart and conservative way and you should follow suit.
Just like relationships between individuals, each business connection is different. We’ll be happy to help you navigate the subtleties of the relationship you have with your Chinese partners.