Banquets - Getting Ready
Relationships are built round dinner tables - especially so in east Asia. So in China it's important to understand how meals "work" - who is expected to order the dishes, sit where and say what. One relationship that was important in a previous job was the one between our office and a Chinese regional government department. Over the years we ate more than 20 formal meals together - some were big functions where we were just two among many other entities, others were more intimate with just the two parties represented. But whichever it was, there was always more at stake than just a good dinner. Good etiquette was part of the way our relationship was strengthened, and our office continued to enjoy the patronage of that government department.
There are many things I could write about these meals, and I will elaborate further at another time, but for now I'll just talk about planning and choice of venue for intimate business meals.
Firstly, it probably goes without saying that these were occasional affairs, booked weeks in advance. A formal meal with government representatives is not a spontaneous matter. Over the years the two parties took turns to host, eating together about twice a year. Choosing the venue was something the host did, and fortunately both parties had a similar view of what represented a "suitable" restaurant. I say "fortunately", because such mutual understanding could't be taken for granted. Another depatment we were involved with, by contrast, always chose much more expensive restaurants than we would have preferred, and seemed to be much more interested in the meal and converstations amongst themselves than with our efforts to build relationships with them. Anyway, back to our case - we built an understanding of what a suitable venue would be, mainly because it became clear that the office managers in our two organisations had a good, open relationship, and were able to talk about such things honestly (they were not the heads of the two organisaitons, but they did make the arrangements for the meal).
Secondly, we had to decide how many people from our office would go. If we were the guests, we would try to find out how many would be there from the host's side, and make sure we had the same number or one less than than them, but with a maximum of 5 from our side. If we were the hosts, we would give an indication of numbers to our guests. Keeping the balance right meant that a number of 1-1 conversations could take place around the table, and neither side felt threatened or taken advantage of by the other. We also made sure that the conversations had a good chance of working well, by making sure we were sending a good mix of seniority and fluency. When western entities meet Chinese ones, seniority and conversational fluency don't always go hand in hand. To get the meal to work well, we needed to anticipate who was likely to relate best to whom in the other party, and prepare to give them "face" by reflecting the levels of seniority of their party back to them in our party. The meal needed to feel as close to mutual as possible, with the admission that they were always that bit more important than us.
Thirdly, we would bring gifts if it was a special occasion - if one of their people was retiring, for example, or if New Year was approaching. These gifts were small but thoughtful - a card, a calendar, something like that. Chinese officials have been afraid of being seen to benefit from "graft" since Xi Jinping came to power, so if in doubt it's best to be cautious in this regard - you don't want them to feel embarrassed. But after we had known each other for a year or so, small personal gifts given occasionally built the relationship without any sense of impropriety.
Finally - as hosts we would always do an advance reconnaissance trip to the restaurant to check it out, and then visit again the day before the meal to pre-order the dishes. We'd arrive at the restaurant at least 10 minutes early to be sure we were there to welcome our guests - if not all of us waited at the door then at least one person would, and the rest inside. Or if we were guests then we would be sure to arrive exactly on time, and keep in touch by mobile to make them aware we were on our way.
That will do for now. I've found this other interesting article from the BBC, which also compares other east Asian countries and their customs. Happy eating!
Matthew Grandage, 28th Feb 2015
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