Whether you’re traveling abroad for business or hosting foreign clients in the States, good dinner manners communicate respect. Without understanding the other culture’s dining etiquette, though, you can unknowingly offend your guests. And that’s not an ideal way to begin a business relationship.
A recent trip to China introduced us to some dining customs that might be unusual to Western diners. Keep scrolling for our essentials on eating, drinking, and paying the bill with Chinese businessmen.
Before the Meal
Take care to arrive early for meals and meetings. Unless Western cities, Chinese businessmen are punctual and only the pompous arrive late. Budget lots of time to get to your destination.
Unless you’re familiar with an individual, address people formally using their last name (such as Miss Wei or Mister Kahn). Business cards are still widely used. Accept and receive cards with two hands.
Gifts are typically exchanged among friends and in some business situations. (It is illegal for government officials to accept presents.) Still, don’t let a gift catch you off guard if your host presents you with one. Be mindful of Chinese customs when shopping. Clocks, straw sandals, items with storks or cranes, handkerchiefs, and white, blue, or black objects are associated with death. Sharp objects like scissors or knives signify cutting a friendship or relationship. A nice writing instrument or a dinner in their honor is always an acceptable choice.
To avoid seeming greedy, it’s common to refuse the gift three times before finally accepting it. Offer your wrapped present with both hands, and your host will accept with gratitude. It’s polite to set the gift aside and open it in private after the dinner has finished.
Cleaning your plate in this culture communicates that you’re still hungry. To show you enjoyed your meal, leave a bit of food on your plate or make a mess around your table. While you may see some diners belching, another sign of satisfaction, it’s not acceptable to let all your table manners go. Unlike dining in Japan, the Chinese think slurping tea or soup is rude.
To show proper respect for your host, wait for him or her to begin eating or drinking before you dig in. If you need to break from using your chopsticks, rest them on the plate, never in upright in your bowl. In most major cities, the restaurant staff can supply you with a fork.
Wait for your host to take the first sip before drinking tea or alcohol. There is a lovely culture of serving others. Even if your glass is completely empty, it’s best to only refill other people’s cups. (They will get to you.) Gently tapping two fingers on the table takes the place of a bow or “thank you.”
For toasts, it’s customary to completely drain the glass.
Paying the Bill
You’re not expected to pay the bill if you’re visiting in someone’s home city or you’re responding to a clear dinner invitation. If you do want to pick up the check, you can excuse yourself during the meal and discretely settle the bill with a server. Often, the most senior person at the table or the host will cover the cost. Tipping is pretty uncommon, so if someone is treating you to a meal, keep your cash to yourself.