In China, first impressions count – especially at the dining table
We all know that people in China love to do business over food. There will be all sorts of reasons for them to hold a proper dining session: to welcome a foreign business partner, to drink to the company’s increase in market share, or to celebrate someone’s marriage or a colleague’s newborn (without the baby present), etc.
Count it as an honour if you are invited for a dinner event in China. It means that you matter and that they have a certain level of interest in building a deeper relationship with you.
Why is the dining session so important there?
A Chinese CEO (chief executive officer) from China once told me this:
“I never really had a full meal with business associates after I got involved in negotiations, because meal time with them means ‘business’.”
Don’t get me wrong. Of course a dining session is a great way to socialise and build business networks.
However, in my experience as an interpreter in China, bosses there have a “purpose” for dining with you. Business people of China observe a lot while having dinner. They will closely observe their business partner, potential client, supplier or just about anyone who might play a part in the future of their company.
People in China have a very unique habit. Regardless of who you say you are or how fantastic your previous track record, they will always pause to see how you respond or carry yourself under different circumstances.
They are very cautious with whom they do business, and sometimes can be seen as very conservative and reserved towards outsiders.
Dinner is a great way for them to observe and know others better. Dinner is often seen as an informal occasion where guests can mingle, chat and share thoughts (most likely on some collaborative projects or the possibility of one in the future) in a relaxed setting without work stress.
At dinner, they can see one’s “true colour” when the other person sheds his/her serious work persona.
Dining is so important in the Chinese culture. With this in mind, let’s pick up some cues on Chinese dining manners.
1. Mind your seat!
We know that dinner tables are usually round in China as the ancient teaching emphasised on “圆” （yuán）, which translates to harmony (圆融) or perfection (圆满). Even though the table is round, you will still need to find out the right seating direction and position.
The Chinese host usually sits facing an easterly direction, because the dining table is like a strong ancient house that is built facing south, and is referred to as “做东”(zuòdōng).
The dining table is set at the centre of the living hall and guests are invited to take their seats on the West and the host on the East.
Locals in China are used to such compass points in their daily lives. In China, I tried several times to ask for directions, but instead of being told to “go straight and turn left after 100 m”, they would say “walk up North then turn West after 100 m”.
Practically, it’s impossible for us to carry a compass wherever we go. Thus, to avoid any unwarranted problems, just let your dinner hosts take their seats first. Thankfully, there will usually be someone to show you your rightful place.
In retrospect, it’s not easy for them to ascertain correct directions either. So, the host should be sitting in a spot where he/she can best monitor the comings and goings of guests.
In a private VIP dining room, the host will seat facing the entrance. The most important guest will be placed on his/her right and the host’s assistant or spouse will be seated on his/her left side.
Keep in mind that taking the wrong seat can offend the host. They will consider you ignorant of local customs and etiquette, and lacking in manners.
2. What’s with the peanuts?
In many Chinese wedding dinners in Malaysia, peanuts are served as an appetiser prior to the main course. In China, how you eat your peanuts is the real test!
Do you eat it before everyone else or do you let others have it first? Which peanut will you go for? The bigger one or the smaller one? Do you choose before you eat or do you just pick randomly without a second thought?
If the guest goes for the bigger peanuts, the Chinese host will keep that in mind and continue to observe for greed or selfishness. They can then be extra careful if there is any future collaboration projects, because to them, you might turn out to be a disloyal business partner who keeps all benefits to yourself.
If you always select the small peanuts, they will think of you as overly cautious and not as bold in making certain decisions. To them, this type of person may be good as a worker but not really cut out to be a business partner.
However, if you go for random peanuts: they will find you easy-going – both good as a friend and as a potential business partner.
Nonetheless, whether a business collaboration falls through or is secured, the outcome is also affected by other conventional factors such as your capability, adaptability to local culture and so on.
However, this first dining impression does serve as an important reference for doing business in China. So, don’t take any chances by losing by a peanut!
CK Wong is principal trainer at Mandarin Specialist Malaysia (previously known as Malaysia Learners Consultancy, or MLC). She believes that Mandarin is a vital language that can take you places. To engage with her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Image Matters articles, click here.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 9 May 2015