The Harshest Phrase in Chinese Business

Shou screen from China First Capital blog post

What are the most reckless and self-destructive words to use while doing business in China? “Let’s skip lunch and continue our meeting.”  Of course, I’m kidding, at least partly. But, there’s nothing frivolous about the fact food is a vital ingredient of business life in China. This is, after all, the country where people for hundreds of years have greeted each other with not with “Hello” but with the question “Have you eaten?”. 

China is no longer a country where food is in any way scarce. But, perhaps because of memories of years of scarcity or just because Chinese food is so damn delicious, the daily rhythms of life still revolves around mealtimes in a way no other country can quite match. This is as true in professional as personal life. 

It’s a certainty that any business appointment scheduled within 1-2 hours of mealtime inevitably will end up pausing for food. In practical terms, that means the only times during working hours that a meeting can be scheduled without a high probability of a meal being included is 9-10am, and 1:30-2:30pm.

At any other time, it’s understood that the meeting will either be shortened or lengthened so everyone participating can go share a meal together.  Any other outcome is just about inconceivable. Whatever else gets said in a meeting, however contentious it might be, one can always be sure that the words “我们吃饭吧” , or “let’s go eat”, will achieve a perfect level of agreement.  

Everyone happily trudges off to a nearby restaurant, and talk switches to everyone’s favorite topic: “what should we order?” Soon, the food begins to pile up on the table. Laughter and toasts to friendship and shared success are the most common sounds. The host gets the additional satisfaction and “face” of providing abundant hospitality to his guests.  

And yet, there are some modern business people in China that can and do conceive of meetings taking precedence over mealtime. Thankfully, they are quite few in number, probably no more than a handful among the 1.4 billion of us in China. I just happen to know more of them than most people. 

In my experience, those with this heterodox view that meals can be delayed or even skipped are mainly Chinese who’ve spent time at top universities in the US. There, they learn that in the US it’s a sign of serious intent to work through mealtimes. It’s a particularly American form of business machismo, and one I never much liked in my years in businesses there. Americans will readily keep talking, rather than break for food. Or, as common, someone will order takeout food, and the meeting will continue, unbroken, as pizza or sandwiches are spread out on the conference room table. 

Heaven help the fool who tries to change the subject, as the takeout food is passed around, to something not strictly related to the business matters under discussion. If as Americans will often remind you, “time is money”, the time spent eating is often regarded as uncompensated, devoid of value and anything but the most utilitarian of purposes. 

Is it any wonder I’m so happy working in China? I love food generally, and Chinese food above all else. It’s been that way since I was a kid. These days, I often tell Chinese that adjusting to life in China has had its challenges for me, but I know that every day I will have at least two opportunities for transcendent happiness: lunch and dinner. 

So, not only do I accept that business meetings will usually include a break for a nice meal, I consider it one of the primary perks of my job. But, I do meet occasionally these US-educated Chinese who don’t share my view. They will ask if meetings can be scheduled so there won’t be the need to break for a meal, or if not, to make the mealtime as short and functional as possible, so “work can resume quickly”. 

This is misguided on so many levels that I worry how these folks, who I otherwise usually like and admire, will ever achieve real career success in China. The meals are often the most valuable and important part of a business meeting – precisely because they are unrushed, convivial and free of any intense discussion of business. 

Trust is a particularly vital component of business in China. Without it, most business transactions will never succeed, be it a private equity investment, a joint venture, a vendor-supplier relationship. Contracts are generally unenforceable. The most certain way to build that trust is to share a meal together — or, preferably, many meals together. 

To propose skipping a meal is a little like proposing to use sign language as the primary form of negotiation for a complex business deal: it’s possible, but likely to lead to first to misunderstanding, frustration and then, inevitably, to failure.

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