Why do Chinese businessmen insist on getting you drunk?

davidlivermore | March 22nd, 2013 10 Comments

Talk to most anyone who has worked on getting a deal in China and they’ll tell you stories about people who insisted on getting them drunk. In a culture where relationships can make or break you in business, getting drunk with a potential business partner is often viewed as a crucial way of solidifying that relationship and showing that you are, in fact, friends.

What’s behind this custom and what’s a culturally intelligent way of responding to it? First off, before I go any further, all the usual cautions about not stereotyping apply here. There are roughly 1.5 billion Chinese people in the world so far be it from me to make broad sweeping descriptions about all Chinese officials or business people. At the same time, those traveling to China are wise to recognize that some recurring drinking rituals are often a part of doing business in China.

First, business dinners start with an invitation. Typically, the person doing the inviting should be of at least the same level as the person being invited. Furthermore, the person doing the inviting pays for dinner. Chinese individuals who follow more traditional norms will make the dinner invitation in person or by phone, not by email or text message. Email is considered too impersonal and it allows a tangible record of those with whom you do business.

Unlike most Western business dinners, business itself is usually the least talked about topic during a Chinese business dinner. If anything, it’s saved for a sliver of time at the end of dinner, although at that point, most of the people involved are so drunk that no real business decisions can come out of it.

But don’t think this means it’s a waste of time. The point of the dinner is to solidify relationships. It’s a big part of determining whether you’re trustworthy. Expect personal questions and don’t be afraid to talk about your personal life. And if you keep drinking, it will be seen as a symbol of friendship.

But beware. Chinese wine is generally about 40-60 percent alcohol and it’s poured into small cups, which resemble miniature wine glasses. Basically, each cup is like taking a shot of hard liquor. The more you drink, the more pleased your cohorts will be, because it shows you’re willing to get drunk with them, just like you would with your friends.

Alcohol has a very long tradition in Confucian society. Confucius, who advocated only eating at meals times and not in between made an exception for wine. He said, “Only wine drinking is not limited.” Today, drinking is a standard part of most Chinese social engagements: birthday celebrations, weddings, and of course Chinese New Year. So to drink with a new business associate is to be brought into their inner circle.

It’s believed that drinking together deepens and strengthens friendships because it loosens people up and helps relieve misunderstanding, no matter how tense the situation might be. Granted, there are certainly times when excessive drinking is being used to wear you down. But the primary orientation behind this practice is social.

So while the heavy drinking that often occurs in Chinese business settings might seem like it violates the Confucian concerns for moderation and etiquette, it centers around the Chinese ideals of building relationship and promoting social harmony.

What do you do if you don’t drink or are unwilling to get drunk? First of all, Caucasians can typically handle more alcohol than many Chinese can so if you’re a Caucasian, you at least have an advantage there. If you decide to drink very little or not at all, just realize that you’re going to have to work extra hard to develop the kind of bonding and relationship building that would otherwise come from the drinking ritual. And if the reason you’re not drinking is health-related, just state that upfront. But work extra hard to enjoy the food you’re served.

Cultural intelligence doesn’t mean you have to be like whomever you’re with. There are things I refuse to do, whatever the cultural norms of a group. But a culturally intelligent person will at least consider how not adapting may be perceived in the other culture, and account for it accordingly.

10 Responses to Why do Chinese businessmen insist on getting you drunk?

  1. In China, dinner parties with business partners are a celebration of doing business together. Drinking heavily is usually expected, as many national cultures share a reputation for enjoying alcohol. Not all, though. Chinese business people will respect those who refuse to drink, but may be disappointed because they enjoy it. In the past, I suspected that the Chinese parties were using the inhibition-breaking effects of alcohol consumption in an attempt to weaken the negotiating positions of their opponents. But then I realized that most of the drinking happened after the deals were done. As David says, it’s about socializing and the relationships. But that leads to to a more insidious point: From my experience, when Chinese invest in relationship building, ie., expensive dinners with lots of expensive drinks, they often use that relationship to take advantage of their partners. Business is about winning. Winning means taking the prizes. It is widely reported that written contracts have little meaning to many Chinese business people. And that has been repeated (and painfully) confirmed by my 8 years in China. You need to trust people in order to do business with them. That’s why relationships are built. But once some people know that you trust them, they strike. It’s just like fishing. You buy and carefully use the perfect bait to catch the biggest fish. When doing business in China, make sure you’re the fisherman, not the fish. But you’ll have to look like a big, tasty fish first, in order to attract the interests of the real fish. Otherwise, you’ll never even get a dinner party invitation. Eat or be eaten.

  2. Excellent additions–thanks Rick! And as you’ve aptly noted, there’s a sense of obligation (guanxi) that goes along with a great deal of this.

    Thanks for sharing your real-life experiences on this!

  3. Actually the obligation aspects arising within guanxi networks are named renqing (pronounced ren-ching). See pp. 5-9, in
    Littrell, Romie F. (2012). Oversimplifications and Omissions in Discussions of the Roles of Business Relationships, Obligations, and Face in China and Relationship-Orientated Societies, Centre for Cross Cultural Comparisons Working Paper Cccc_Wp_2012.1.

    http://www.google.co.nz/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CD8QFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcrossculturalcentre.homestead.com%2FLittrell_RF_CCCC_Working_Paper_2012.1.doc&ei=XcxRUdupK8TPkwXop4DIDQ&usg=AFQjCNGt32Y5uBggVj0YCWc4Cv3j0wRTzQ&bvm=bv.44158598,d.dGI&cad=rja

    • Thanks for the link to your paper, Romie. I found it very useful. You make excellent points about over-simplification, which is such a very common pitfall for those who approach intercultural understanding at a generalist level (as is often necessary in the business world). David’s article scratches the surface, and probably provides enough information for a first encounter, or where the stakes are low. But anyone seriously looking to do business in China needs to dig deeper if they hope to gain real understanding and form successful relationships. Drinking alone won’t do it (but I’ll gladly have another ;-).

      • I couldn’t agree more Barbara. The bane of my existence is ensuring we’re not too “academic” on one hand, or too overly-simple on the other. Without question, the suggestions I offered are at best, a cursory introduction!

  4. Just Curious,
    I was reflecting on the comment that Chinese ‘wine’ has 40-60% more alcohol – so sip slowly.
    Being in Australia and New Zealand last month, I discovered that the Chinese market is now the emerging market for wine in those areas. The Chinese are getting very interested in ‘foreign wine’.
    Would it seem proper to bring them some foreign wine and share that with them for dinner – or would this be seen as an insult?
    I also was told that if you used the reason “I don’t drink for religious reasons” – they really respect that a lot. Yes, I agree with the comment that if you don’t engage in the the drinking, indulge in the food – like it was the BEST you have ever had!

  5. Very interesting. Question: how does this apply across genders? Are female Caucasian business leaders expected to drink heavily with their (often) male Asian counterparts?

  6. @Angel: Great question! I don’t imagine it would be an insult to bring foreign wine but I welcome other’s perspective who are closer to the ground these days in China.

    @Sylvia. I’ve often wondered the same thing myself. I know of female colleagues who have most definitely experienced the same expectations but others tell me they use their gender as a way to bow out of the excessive drinking. Again–I welcome others who can provide firsthand experience!

  7. A wine glass is a type of glass stemware that is used to drink and taste wine. It is generally composed of three parts: the bowl, stem, and foot. Selection of a particular wine glass for a wine style is important, as the glass shape can influence its perception.,

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    http://www.caramoan.ph/things-to-do-in-caramoan/

  8. @Angel: It depends if you are drinking with government officials. If yes, drink whatever they serve because these could be their best “bai jiu” that is way more expensive than your foreign wine.. but the way I have done it in China, is to ensure I have a strong team of young drinkers to drink for me! Done that with government folks and normal businesses, and they are very gracious as long as I do 1-2 little cups…most likely cuz I am a woman. Usually, they force me to sing instead. 😉

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