Surviving The Asian Dinner Ritual

Westerners frequently miss the importance of the Asian dinner ritual. In fact, some Western business cultures, like the United States, keep personal relationships and business relationships so completely separate that the idea of one influencing the other is taboo. In Asia, the lines between business and personal relationships are very different. Misunderstanding this important cultural shift can lead to unrecoverable missteps.

Tips To Survive The Asian Dinner Ritual

Most Asian cultures place tremendous importance on building a strong relationship before entering into business together – or even before discussing business. Relationship building is an important precursor to developing a business relationship, and one of the best ways Asian business people get to know each other is over dinner and drinks.

Unlike in the West, the dinner ritual is not a celebration of a “done deal.” It’s part of the relationship-building in which Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian cultures invest so much importance. This is an opportunity to get to know your hosts, and vice-versa, but it’s definitely not about talking business. Expect to discuss everything except business, from the weather, to your family, to kids and hobbies. If your partners love American baseball or golf, the conversation will definitely go there. Women will often find themselves being faced with topics that are inappropriate in countries such as the United States, like what their plans for raising children are. The more open, honest, and genuine you are, the better to cement trust. This is where personal relationships are built, and business in Asia doesn’t happen without a strong relationship as a foundation.

Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer
Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer

Most of my clients ask about gifts. They are appropriate, usually after signing a business deal or finishing a tough negotiation or project together. As your relationship grows, it’s likely the gift giving will become more expensive. Start with rice wine (bai jiu), a good red wine (from your home region, if you live in a wine producing state), or expensive Chinese or U.S. brand cigarettes (most Chinese professionals drink and smoke). Remember the importance of “face.” If no one else brings a gift, give yours to the host privately so that you don’t embarrass the other dinner guests.

Heavy drinking is very common, but don’t overdo it. I recall one situation where an American employee got a little bit too drunk, and ended up being too straight-forward in his opinions about the project the team was working on. What he said was not complimentary to the team, and the next day I received a formal request to remove him from the project. While dinner parties can be a lot of fun, remember you are still building a relationship. Your host will be finding out who you really are, and decisions about your future business relationship will be based on the personal connection made, or not made. Let your host lead the toasts, and don’t think you’re in a drinking competition. Saying “I’ve had enough” helps your host gain face.

When it comes time to pay the bill, if you’ve been invited your host will pay. Your thanks will be welcome and appreciated. If you do feel the urge to pay, let your host know well ahead of time and avoid fighting over it at the table.

Also, if you have any special dietary requirements, let your host’s assistant know ahead of time. Your host will be very happy to accommodate your requirements, but keep in mind that events are usually planned days in advance, and you may be meeting new faces at dinner. Be considerate, and allow plenty of time to prepare.

Speaking of new faces, be sure to bring plenty of business cards. Exchange of business cards is an important ritual throughout Asia, and not having cards can be construed as disrespectful. When receiving or presenting a card, do it with two hands, thumb and forefinger grasping the corners of the card, and orient the card toward the person receiving it. A bow will often accompany receipt of a card, and you should always take time to read the card. This demonstrates respect for the person presenting it, and gives you the opportunity to find out who at the table is due the most respect.

Above all, be genuine and forthcoming, and get to know your host. By building a strong personal bond, you can look forward to a long and successful business relationship.

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