Before the dinner
As a guest your responsibilities begin before you arrive at the dinner or banquet. Here’s what you need to prepare:
Who will be at the dinner?
One of the most important things you can do before arriving is to confirm the number of guests accompanying you. This is important as the host may pre-order food and if the numbers are not accounted for accurately there is the potential to end up with either too much or too little food. I personally haven’t struck the latter as in most cases there seems to be sufficient buffer applied.
You should also provide the names and titles of your party which may be helpful in planning seating arrangements, and of course let your host know if there are any special dietry requirements of the group. This should not be used as an opportunity to attempt to avoid such delicacies as sea cucumber, duck head, bullfrog innards, turtles or other treats which many westerners can find disconcerting (unless of course you are vegetarian or have legitimate allergies).
Bring business cards
You may be presented with business cards before, or sometimes during dinner. Here are some reminders:
- Accept the card with both hands, with fingers on the corners so as not to obscure the information – a gesture that signals respect.
- Offer a card back to anyone you are introduced to, with both hands and fingers on the corners so as not to obscure the information on the card.
- If you have Chinese details on your card you should present it with the Chinese side face up.
- Don’t write on someone else’s business card, and do not keep them on the table during dinner.
- Note: In some Asian countries you are expected to bow your head when first greeting someone. CHINA IS NOT ONE OF THESE COUNTRIES. A simple handshake, smile and cordial exchange of business cards are all appropriate.
Show up on time
In China, and especially in the larger cities, traffic can be challenging (this is likely to deteriorate). This needs to be factored in as showing up late is regarded as very impolite. Research travel times and plan a buffer to ensure you arrive on time. I often find that a hotel car is better than relying on taxis.
Greeting and seating
The pre-meal mingle
Once you arrive at your dinner destination, try to break the ice by greeting people with topical and casual subjects. Make sure to greet your host first, and don’t leave anyone out or take anyone for granted. When your host is someone you haven’t met before and don’t recognise you will usually find that the group greeting you will make it obvious who the host is.
Sit and talk
Once everyone is introduced, look to the host for guidance and be ready to sit down. When I’m the senior guest I find that I am more often than not directed to a seat on the right hand side of the Host. This is not always the case however and an early learning for me was that as the senior guest seated in the wrong seat it created a good deal of confusion amongst the hosts as to who was in fact ‘in charge’ from our side.
The dining table in most cases will be round with the host seated facing the door. Do not clump yourselves together but spread out amongst the hosts. The meal may well take over three hours. Try to create small talk throughout the evening – sport, weather, flights, travel destinations, sightseeing, food and hometowns are safe topics and don’t forget to pass on how much you have enjoyed their city, and Chinese hospitality.
If you are utilising an interpreter it is important to look at your host when you speak, the host speaks, or the interpreter is translating – not the interpreter. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as it can be quite difficult nodding and smiling when you do not actually know what is being said. It’s best to avoid the temptation to ‘get down to business’ too soon. Wait until the host moves the conversation towards business topics.
Once everyone is seated, Chinese tea will usually be given to you almost immediately. Sometimes the teapot will be left on the table If you finish your tea and want a refill, first glance at those around you to see if they need more tea. If so pour for the host and his party first before filling your own. Logistically this may be difficult so those to your immediate left and right should suffice.
A waiter may ask you what you wish to drink. If unsure it is best to ask for something non-alcoholic as the host is usually responsible for ordering the alcohol. If the host orders for the entire table then it is best to be respectful and not order any other alcohol. If the host does not order for the table, it would be wise to order something non-alcoholic, or watch what others order.
Useful drinking terms Ganbei
- (Gan bay) Chinese for “bottoms up”. Literally means “dry cup”.
- Baijiu (Bye-joe) A colourless very strong liquor made from grain. Literally means “white alcohol”
- ‘Mao Tai” is one of the most well-known brand. Commonly 50+ % proof an expensive drink served neat in small glasses.
- Pijiu (Pee-joe) Beer. Generally of good quality but many are of relatively low alcohol content. Tsingtao is probably the most famous brand and most commonly drunk by westerners. Beware beer connoisseurs – often not served chilled.
- Putaojiu (Poo-tao-joe) Grape wine, not to be confused with ‘baijiu’. Red wine is known as ‘hong jiu’ while white (grape) wine is best referred to as ‘bai-putaojiu’. China serves some very good local wines now and are particularly fond of French wines. Red is the predominant grape wine and is almost always served at the banquet dinner.
Toasting is considered an important part of Chinese dining and business culture. The host will offer an initial toast to the whole table to show the meal is starting. The host will start with one, two, or even three rounds before the less senior people may also propose a toast, usually once or twice. After several rounds of toasting you should toast back at least once to the host and party.
Later on the table may even start toasting between individuals and small groups of three or four. If you are toasted then at some point they will expect you to toast them back. It is also common for the host and other individuals to leave their seat to toast you personally.
Another important gesture of respect is to have your glass touch a lower part of their glass (not the bottom of the glass). Hold your toasting glass with either hand but also have your free hand gently supporting the bottom of the glass.
Finally watch your drinking limits closely. Pace yourself and don’t be afraid to stop drinking so as not to lose self-control (this could save you more than just embarrassment).
More often than not the host party is observing how you are drinking. A smart drinker will gain more respect and trust than the sloppy drinker. Note it is not unheard of for the Chinese party to use drinking tactics to gain an upper hand. Beware of multiple toasts and in particular ‘Gan bei’.
Waiters will bring out communal dishes and place them on the rotating round table. You can expect the host to engage the entire table, and then give you a signal to eat. You will have a pair of chopsticks to eat with and there are likely to be extra chopsticks and spoons with the food for serving.
If you see the host using his own chopsticks for serving then it is Ok for you to do so too, however if you are serving others you should use the serving chopsticks.
While most hosts will make knives and forks available if required, in my view it is fundamental that you master chopsticks so practice before you go. Dining at your local chinese restaurant is a good way to acquire the skills.
A typical dinner menu follows the following format:
- Cold starter (vegetable and cold cuts)
- Main dishes (hot soup, meat, fish, vegetables)
The table should be turned in a clockwise direction, and you should feel free to do this to dish your own food or to offer to others. Just make sure no-one is dishing up food when you do it. Also make sure that you don’t leave serving utensils poking out where they can inadvertantly knock over wine glasses when the table is turned. When you take a pause from eating place your chopsticks in the placeholder provided. Do not insert the chopsticks into a bowl of rice, or have them standing straight up; it is similar to a ritual for the deceased and may be deemed offensive.
As stated earlier the final dishes will include fruits or desserts. Don’t be in a hurry to get up and leave; the last part of the meal is just as important as the first. The host will signal an end to the dinner which is time for everyone to get up from the table. Sometimes this can seem quite sudden, however being aware that when the final dishes are served you can assume that there is 15-30 minutes before the meal is complete which should reduce the perceived abruptness.
Post-meal discussion and gifts
Expect anything at this point. Unlike typical practice in the west, hosts and guests may not leave directly after completion of dinner. Keep a social personality and look to the host for clues as he may want to continue chatting, drinking, toasting. If you are invited to post-dinner entertainment such as Karaoke, do not turn the invitation down. It is a chance to further develop the relationship in a social setting.
Some sort of gift giving may be expected from the guest to the host party. You should plan to bring along something small, with significant meaning but not costly.
Top 10 tips
- Wait to talk about business specifics, unless of course the host raises it first.
- It is best not to remove serving dishes from the table to pass around. Use serving utensils to serve .
- If your hosts take calls at the table, don’t be offended. You however should keep your phone off.
- Don’t insult the food or say you don’t like Chinese food as this can come off as insulting to the host. It is acceptable to ‘pass’ on something you don’t wish to eat, however be aware this can be a bit of a test.
- Don’t take food directly from serving dishes straight to your mouth. Use your dish or bowl. Don’t fill your plate – the plate will come around again.
- Go easy on the alcohol.
- If you cannot use chopsticks, have a try, then ask your host for knife and fork. Chances are your host will be one step ahead of you here anyway.
- Most of the chicken or fish will have bones – be discreet transferring these to your plate.
- Stay animated and engaged. Don’t let boredom show.
- Don't under any circumstance other than an emergency, excuse yourself from the meal and leave first, even if everyone has finished eating.