As I have discussed in my previous article on "The subtle art of the formal Chinese banquet", the importance of relationship building to the Chinese is paramount. Apparent social functions like banquets are held in very high regard by Chinese businessmen and government official due to the ability for one to get to 'know' their potential business partners. This knowledge is achieved through watching foreign businessman’s behaviour during the formal and informal drinking and eating rituals that are performed during every formal banquet. It is therefore important to be aware of these rituals, drinking strategies and how to ensure you leave the banquet in higher esteem than when you arrived.
There is a definite hierarchy to the formal toasting at a banquet. Thus the host will toast the most important guest, then the next most important and on and on down the order of importance. This must be remembered, in order for one not to jump the gun and propose a toast before ones allocated turn. It is therefore important for one to observe the banquet environment to determine ones hierarchy at the banquet table. Toasting someone is highly ritualistic and generally requires the toaster to stand and make a toast. It is important at this stage to ensure there is an adequate supply of wine, beer or spirit in the glasses of the toaster and the toastee. The glasses should be filled to the same level, if they are uneven it can imply anything from a lack of respect through to an intent to cause drunkenness. One must then propose a suitable toast, probably to enduring friendships and successful business ventures, while looking at the person receiving the toast. It is at this point that the glasses are clinked to confirm the toast. Even this ritualistic clinking is embedded with importance.
Clinking of glasses should be done in a delicate and considered manner, not smashed together like beer steins in a Bavarian beer hall. It is important to get the glass as low to the table as possible when clinking glasses. This is much the same principle of bowing in traditional Japanese culture. A lower glass infers respect upon the other person. This can create a competitive environment when in China, as each person strives to outdo the other with the lowest glass. Ultimately both glasses may be touching the table. It is at this point that the toast is completed with the refrain of 'Gan Bei' which is like cheers, and implies that the glasses will be emptied. Obviously this could pose a problem if the glass is significantly filled, or is filled with a strong spirit, especially if you have already completed a series of 'Gan Bei’s'. The glass should ideally be grasped with both hands, one hand around the rim and the other at the base of the glass. Drinking the contents of the glass in a measured fashion, not necessarily throwing them back quickly like shooters in the front bar of you favourite night club. Depending upon the competitiveness of the drinking, you may be required to show the inside of your glass to prove it is empty, or even turn it upside down over your head. Allow for regional variations to determine which is the norm in this regard...when in Rome do as the Romans, when in China do as the Chinese.
At this point it starting to seem like an end of season footy trip or even a stag party.....but it is in fact serious business, and it is vitally important to remain at the top of your game. Potentially business killing mistakes can be made easily under drinking duress, so be careful. To succeed in not playing the fool or blowing the game through inappropriate drunkenness it is important that you have a strategy to deal with a 'Gan Bei' attack should one occur. A 'Gan Bei' attack is where a series of hosts all toast you one after the other; this is especially dangerous if you are at a numerical disadvantage, and your team members don’t match up evenly with the other side to reciprocate the ‘Gan Bei’s’. If there is no disadvantage then this is easily remedied by reciprocal 'Gan Bei’s' by other members of your contingent, that way evening the drinking balance. If you are under siege and have a disadvantage then you need to be a seasoned drinker, keep calm and even consider regular trips to the toilet....for a ritual cleansing (I am not joking here).
Obviously not everyone who ventures to China on Business is a drinker, or a seasoned drinker, however, not accepting a toast is very dangerous and will be looked upon as uncivilized or potentially disrespectful. This does not mean that you will necessarily kill any deal, but it does mean a successful deal is a lot more difficult to achieve. So the moral of the story is to be prepared, be strategic, and try not to drink mystery spirits.
Dr Nathan Gray is Managing Partner of AsiaAustralis – a strategic management advisory firm that specialises in markets throughout Asia. Over the past three decades our consultants have assisted companies achieve their market objectives in Asia.