Food: The Secret of Chinese Business Culture

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Doing Business in China

China is a global manufacturing powerhouse, with a rapidly developing middle class. As the global economy becomes more and more interdependent, it’s essential that we learn the social cues and etiquette of other cultures.

The most obvious difference between American and Chinese culture is attitudes regarding individualism vs. collectivism. Chinese culture has long valued the collective good over individual ambitions. Maintaining a sense of harmony is extremely important, and the concept of “face” (面子- Miàn zi) is valued highest of all. Jonathan Story, the professor who authored China Uncovered: What you need to know to do business in China, describes face as a “mix of public perception, social role, and self-esteem that has the potential to either destroy or help build relationships.”

It’s important to respect cultural norms and maintain awareness for seemingly harmless actions that may imply a totally different message to your Chinese colleague or client. Without maintaining your own “face”, you may find it difficult to navigate the complex business landscape of China.

An American in Beijing

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Carson Tavenner from the Tai Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to improving American-Chinese relations, offers some insight into the world of Chinese business culture. Eating and drinking together with prospective business partners is an essential step towards establishing a business relationship. But in China, there are very minute details that will say a lot about your cultural awareness and refinement. Tavenner says, “Enjoy the eating and drinking phase of the business development relationship. Do not view it as a ‘speed bump’ requiring what may appear to be unnecessary waiting time, or even feel like a waste of time.”

Eat Your Way To Partnerships

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Dining together builds trust and respect with Chinese businesspeople. This relationship is considered fundamental to any sort of transaction. “It is not just a ‘box to check’ on the cultural path to business success. It is actually enjoyable, and the enjoyment of it is actually important. If you aren’t enjoying it, then you are simply showing your true colors when it comes to whether you value the other partners’ perspective and situation,” according to Tavenner. By carefully observing cultural norms and truly enjoying the process, you will build trust and loyalty with your Chinese counterparts. 

Respect Rank And Status

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Chinese culture places great importance on rank and status. Another important aspect of dining with Chinese associates includes an understanding of seating at dinners in special rooms: the host sits farthest from the door. Americans don’t generally pay attention to small details such as this, but it is essential to do so in China. Tavenner advises, “If you are hosting, you should take this seat and not defer it to appear humble. The person who actually handles the payment of money with the staff sits closest to the door. To the right of the host sits the honored guest. In my experience, this will quickly go to the eldest official if there is otherwise no clear ‘boss’ of the guest delegation.”

Share The Good Stuff, And Don’t Clean Your Plate

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Another way to stand out as a gracious and thoughtful guest: At a family-style meal, put food from one of the better dishes onto the plate of the person next to you. Aim for the person in a more honorable position than you, they will be seated closer to the host’s chair.

In contrast to American manners, where cleaning your plate expresses your satisfaction with the meal, it is considered rude to clean your plate in China. By cleaning your plate, you are telling your Chinese host that they did not provide enough food, and you are still hungry. Leave a small amount of food on the plate, to indicate to your hosts that they have been overly generous and you cannot possible partake in all the food they have brought you.

Sing For Your Supper

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Tavenner suggests sharing an American folk song (for the tuneful among us) or piece of memorized poetry as a cultural exchange gift to the host. Save this for the end of a meal, and be sure to preface your performance with a short explanation of the piece and an indication of its purpose. Be sure to sing or recite your piece “genuinely and meaningfully”, says Tavenner.

The Takeaway

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Cross-cultural business relationships can be complex, and Tavenner’s expertise clearly illustrates why we should study and learn about other cultures. Something as simple as cleaning your plate could greatly offend your host and mean the end of your relationship, much to your puzzled dismay. Organizations like the Tai Initiative are on a mission to improve the relationship between American and Chinese organizations, and help provide cultural awareness training and other resources for increased partnerships.

About The Tai Initiative

Mission: To build real bilateral communication capacity between the U.S. and China at the subnational level (state/city/university/business) by nurturing a network of solid personal relationships upon which the two national governments can lean for achieving successful communication, understanding, and trust.

Learn more about the Tai Initiative’s activities and upcoming conference in Washington, D.C. here.

Special thanks to Virginia Winslow for her assistance with this article. 

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