You’re at a Chinese business dinner—seven of them, and one of you. They all want to drink a toast with you, meaning that you’re drinking seven glasses to their one. On top of that, even though you’ve already drank quite a bit, they’re still constantly pressing for more. Unless you are a gold-medal grade drinker, you’re in big trouble.
This situation doesn’t always happen, but odds are that while doing business in China, you’re going to run into the situation. This is particularly true with the rapidly approaching Chinese Spring Festival, and all the parties/banquets it engenders.
Some expats have no problem with this, and in fact quite enjoy it. But for others, it can be uncomfortable at best, and downright infuriating at worst. So as the holiday season approaches, take these tips to make your dining/drinking experience less stressful and (potentially) more enjoyable.
The most important aspect is not how much you drink, but rather how drunk you get.
Tip #1 It’s all a game, and negotiation is the key. You should drink at least twice with the host, or whoever the most important Chinese person is; but after that, it’s open season on everyone else. When someone else asks you to drink with them, negotiate. “I’ll just drink a mouthful, OK?” “No way. Drink the whole thing!” “Oh, but I’m not as good a drinker as you, how about we drink half each?” “No, we drink the whole glass!” “How about you drink all of it, I drink half of it?”
Once two of you agree, start pulling others into it. “Hey, those two should drink with us, too!” Of course, they’ll try to avoid it, saying, “We’ll drink with you later,” but then you can challenge them with, “Aren’t you my friend?” Then you start over again with the negotiations about who is going to drink, and how much each person is going to drink. This should easily fill five to 10 minutes of time, and will entertain everyone, while showing that you’re not a pushover.
Tip #2 Make random drinking rules. Chinese do this all the time. When discovered that two people come from the same city/province, others will tell them to drink together. There are no explicit rules, you just make them up as you go. Feel free to say stuff like, “Everyone who is married should drink together.” Again, this is all part of the game, and rather than leaving you as a passive spectator, puts you right in the middle of it, getting others to drink, and not putting all the pressure on you.
Tip #3 Watch out for that guy pushing everyone to drink without drinking much himself. Almost every dinner has one. Once you’ve identified this person, challenge them. When they try to make you drink with other people, explicitly point it out, and make them drink with you. And every single time this person tries to make you drink, do the same thing. They will quickly learn to leave you alone.
Tip #4 The most important aspect is not how much you drink, but rather how drunk you get. If you drink two glasses and are really drunk, that’s fine. If you’ve drunk five glasses and are still reasonably sober, they’ll want you to drink more. A big part of the reason for this is the idea that you show your ‘real self’ when you are drunk, so drinking together is a way to build relationships and better understand each other. Refusing to get drunk can be seen as an indication that you don’t trust them enough to show them what you are really like.
Tip #5 While drinking can help in negotiating and building relationships with Chinese partners, it is not essential. If you do not like drinking, or are uncomfortable in this kind of situation, then don’t do it. However, if you’re not going to drink a lot, then you should drink nothing. Start the meal by telling everyone that you won’t drink alcohol. Give whatever reason you want, and then stick with that. They may push you a little at first, but for the most part will respect this. However, if you start off drinking, then later try to stop, they’ll cry foul.
Tip #6 Substitutes are allowable. You can choose someone else to ‘represent’ you, to be your designated drinker. Chinese leaders sometimes will, it is a culturally acceptable way to give them face without having to drink too much. Make the toast, and then hand the glass to your representative. It’s better if you can drink, but if you don’t want to, this is your best alternative.
Learning the cultural aspects of drinking in China will not only make it more fun, but will lead to improved relationships and communication. So go ahead and tell your boss/spouse/friends that you are getting completely smashed because it is good for business!
John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.