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The Hidden Rules of Chinese Business Lunch

12 January 2007

Training for business lunch

"Breaking bread breaks barriers," as it is famously expressed by Robin Jay, a business lunch guru with The Art of the Business Lunch to his credit. Following his instrument, the West businessmen and women spread across the table salads, biscuits and sandwiches, get a pot of tea and coffee ready; if the guests are so important to their business, then hot roast meat rolls, beef or pork steaks would be on the menu, and even BBQ and even a cocktail reception. Then, as they have expected, over the refreshment, a few deals have been sealed, the old commitments have been renewed, and much has been decided. All is well, until one day they usher in honoured Chinese guests, particularly when the guests are officials (China has a lot of officials). Or when they go to China to meet their clients, especially when the clients are officials (Chinese business can’t run without officials). Suddenly, they find Robin Jay’s trick no longer works. Breaking bread alone does little, if anything, in helping them to break barriers.

Fortunately, there is a case study drawn from the personal experiences of a Chinese vice-professor who has decoded some hidden rules in the Chinese game of barrier-breaking, and below is a brief summery of his business lunch/dinner report:

Once upon a time, the vice-professor took a business trip to a city. Upon arrival, his old college pal Mr. Tang, a chief executive of a private company, arranged a business dinner (饭局) to welcome him and to introduce him to the city’s VIPs, i.e. the local officials.

The dinner was scheduled to start at 6:30 PM. By 5.50 PM, Tang and the vice-professor arrived at the restaurant’s VIP room in a star-ranked hotel. No one else appeared until five minutes past the 6:30 PM when Mr Li, a chief of an administration office (科长), surfaced. Li’s boss Mr Zen, a section head (主任), arrived seven minutes after him. Eight minutes and twenty minutes later, Zen’s boss Zhang and Li, two bureau chiefs (局长), emerged respectively. When Mr Wang, a secretary to the city mayor, showed up, it was well past 7 PM, nearly 45 minutes after the scheduled time.

So the vice-professor kindly illustrated the two hidden rules of the Chinese style business lunch/dinner:

1) According to Einstein's theory of relativity, time itself changes with the speed of motion of the instrument that measures it. In here, the instrument of the measurement is the rank of position. With the notion of the relativity, the idea that a public time exists is unattainable, so we see the more massive the body (i.e. the heavier the social weight, the higher the position rank), the slower the time appears to run (i.e. the later to arrive at the restaurant).

2) The official title of an official does not always reflect the actual rank of the official, and that explains why the secretary to the mayor was the last to show up. It is not because he was a secretary, but to mayor.

After much delay, the dinner finally started. When Tang introduced the vice-professor to other guests, he emphasised "professor" but didn’t bother to mention "vice". And he did the same when he introduced the officials to the professor.

So the professor (with vice) revealed the third hidden rule:

3) Always remember to address your guests with title of position, but forever forget to include little extras like assistant, deputy or vice.

Before lifting your chopsticks there was one more task to accomplish: toast. Tang the host toasted the secretary to the mayor, then the two bureau chiefs, then the professor, and then the section head and the office chief. The secretary toasted bureau chiefs, the professor and the host, but did not toast the section head and office chief. Two bureau chiefs toasted the secretary, the professor and the host, but did not toast the section head and the office chief. The section head and the office chief toasted everyone and each other.

So the professor disclosed the forth hidden rules of the Chinese style business lunch/dinner:

4) Doing toast is not just a token of friendship. It is more the power of recognition.

Over the dinner table, Tang the host let slip a line from a Tang verse: "酒逢知己千杯少". The professor quickly added his scholarly contribution, "葡萄美酒夜光杯". Then the section head followed, "借酒消愁愁更愁". Then a bureau chief uttered, "今朝有酒今朝醉". Then the office chief recited, "醉翁之意不在酒". Then another bureau chief expressed, "酒不醉人人自醉".

So the professor imparted the last hidden rules:

5) During the Chinese style business dinner/lunch, you shall talk less about what was on the office desk but more about what was on the dinner table. If you talk more about wine and food, you may eventually get the business; if you talk more about the business, you may just have a nice dinner/lunch.


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