I recently returned home from a week-long trip to majestic Shandong province in China, where I participated in six banquets in six different cities and towns. I sat around big, round tables and ate dog meat (“meat dog, not house dog,” as I was told), chitterlings, sheep stomach, sea urchin and myriad other exotic dishes.
Photo: Getty Images
Being invited to a banquet in China is an honor. (I was specifically told on the first day of my trip that “you need to dress more beautifully.”) These banquets are accompanied by multiple formalities, including dozens of speeches, most of which require guests to “bottoms up” whichever 80-proof liqueur happens to be on the table. I was never more than 60% sure about what was going on, but I did quickly learn that you shouldn’t bring up dissident artist Ai Wei Wei at the dinner table unless you want your host to jump out the window.
Business etiquette experts say that almost nothing is left to chance at a Chinese banquet. The seating is often based on some definition of hierarchy, the menu is meticulously and traditionally organized, and your dining companions have often done research into your background in order to prep conversational possibilities. They are, in a word, thorough.
Thoroughness is important when it comes to building a relationship abroad. “Rule No. 1 is that you always need to be tuning into the specific culture you’re visiting,” says Lyudmila Bloch, a business etiquette coach and founder of etiquetteoutreach.com. “You have to be aware of customs, traditions and cultural sensitivity.”
Terri Morrison, author of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, says that working on the right kind of social relationship is key: “These aren’t your friends; your behavior is being monitored closely.”
So, what do you need to know to get through work-social functions on the other side of the world?
First off, if you’re hoping to seal the deal with partners in another culture, you’ll likely be invited to join them at a restaurant or bar, someone’s home or the (oft-dreaded) karaoke bar. Cynthia Lett, an international protocol authority, says that it takes time to establish the right amount of trust required to do business – and that sometimes includes a drunken evening or two of karaoke. “They want to do business with a whole human being,” says Lett. “We want to do business with the wallet.”
But don’t forget your wallet, because you’re expected to come bearing gifts in most cultures. Lett suggests bringing something made in America – such as crystal, pewter, anything Native American or with an American eagle on it, or picture books of American sites – and waiting until your departure before offering it to your counterpart. (In some places, offering it when you arrive can be construed as a bribe.)
When it comes to small talk, stick with relatively neutral topics like travel, sports, food or recent non-political events, says Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Poised for Success and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work. But you should still be ready and able to talk global politics, especially in places like Germany and Denmark. “They expect you to have an opinion on these things,” says Morrison.
And what about alcohol? In many places, you will be expected to imbibe – particularly, as I found out when I was set free from a festive two-hour lunch banquet to drunkenly stumble around Confucius’ family home, in China. But also in Korea, Japan, Northern Europe and parts of Latin America. It can be considered a key part of forging a relationship. “You’ve got to show the spirit and enthusiasm for the culture,” says Bloch. “It’s really awkward when you’re sitting with a bunch of associates and you’re not a drinker and you’re on a diet.” Lett, whose first experience at a formal banquet in China was being served monkey brains, says it’s often considered insulting if you don’t at least try everything.
There are, of course, lots of places where there are social prohibitions on certain types of consumption: pork and alcohol in much of the Arab world, and meat and sometimes alcohol in the Hindu world. It’s best to err on the side of modesty when in comes to dress, whether you’re a man or a woman. In some places, certain styles of dress are considered excessively flashy, such as purple in Latin America or bright colors in Japan. In some parts of the world, there is no contact (including a handshake) between members of the opposite sex. Be sure to take a cue from your hosts.
And, finally, there are also varying cultural norms when it comes to timing. In Latin America, for example, evening meetings are common, as are invitations to people’s homes, but don’t expect anything to start on time. When Lett was in Argentina many years ago, she was invited to someone’s house for dinner at 8 pm. “I showed up on time and had to wait in my cab for an hour until someone came home,” she recalls. “I always recommend bringing a book.”
Other things to keep in mind:
1. Body language is important. “We like firm and powerful handshakes, but Chinese do not like too much contact,” says Bloch. “They might just bow, which is considered a sign of respect.” Also, keep in mind that many hand gestures do not have universally consistent meanings.
2. Exercise caution when displaying symbols. For example, using Saudi Arabia’s flag in any promotional materials is considered offensive, says Morrison, because it displays Allah’s name.
3. Bring lots of business cards. Particularly in Asia, you’ll be expected to trade business cards with a large number of people, both in boardrooms and at banquet tables. Bringing too few, and being forced to pick and choose who gets one, can be construed as an insult to some.
4. Be prepared to answer personal questions. Associates in other cultures may ask very personal questions – age, family, romantic situation, education – in order to get to know you better and gauge your status.
5. Anticipate the “long game.” If you’re hoping to rush through the signing of contracts and make it back to the hotel in time for cocktail hour, forget it. “[Many cultures] really want to get to know the people they’re doing business with and that could be weeks or months,” says Lett. “If you think you’re going to go over to China, Japan or Malaysia and get a deal done on your first trip, you’re sorely mistaken.”