A Few Words on Not Drinking in China
- Much has been written about drinking and the role it plays in doing business in China. Someone should write about how not to drink in China. Our CEO has been doing business in China since 1985, and has not had a drink (in or out of China) since 1990. Here’s Janet’s take on Not Drinking in China.
by Janet Carmosky
Some people really just shouldn’t drink, and I am one of them. How does that work in a business culture where Banquet Arts are a real career-builder? I’ll start with two important points. First of all, I am female, so I get away with more. Agreed, men have a harder time defending the fine art of banqueting safely. It’s possible but takes more skill. Second, I am consistent in not drinking. It’s not as if I drank with Mr. Bai last week but today I’m too stuck up to toss a few back with Mr. Huang. Once you get the reputation of being able to drink, it takes a lot of conviction to consistently pull off that “Yes I Do, But Not Tonight” argument. Still, with some awareness of what it’s all about, and some skills, it’s possible to Banquet Safely.
Know this above all: bonding with someone publicly is an act of giving face. When sharing liquor is the preferred means of bonding, to refuse the glass feels rejection, a denial of face. The objective is to establish means other than drinking as bonding. Here are some tips:
Be a foodie. China is a food culture, so if you want to bond, eat up, eat adventurously and often. If you can’t drink, get a stretch wardrobe, get over your aversions, and talk about food.
Participate in the drinking ritual. Namely, make toasts: it accomplishes some of the face-giving and bonding part of drinking without the actual alcohol. Fill your glass with anything, stand up when it’s time, and express your gratitude, your optimism, your humor. If you speak any Chinese at all, invest your time in developing well-phrased toasts: keep a few all-around ones for general use and create two or three for each important banquet. If you are not a Chinese speaker, work with a Chinese speaker and or translator in advance to get the Chinese version of your toasts “right”.
Lighten up and get to know people. Do it sober but do it: take photos, play cards chess or ma jiang, tell bad jokes, go for massages, accompany people on trips to villages whose historic importance or scenic beauty eludes you but get the picture taken anyway. Whatever your thing is. It’s about showing your personality and letting them show theirs.
Finally, collect designated drinkers. Sometimes your host just insists that, since he’s Party A and you’re Party B, you provide him with companionship in the form of a drinking partner. Sometimes the colorful, pleasant characters in your life who can hold their hooch are an important relationship building asset.
In summary, “Strongly Encouraged Drinking” is one of the default means by which Chinese seek to determine if you are willing to invest in your relationship with them. Show them that you are. And equally important, to find out if you take yourself too seriously. Show them you don’t. Your liver will thank you. When your Party A are inveterate heavy drinkers – Shandong, Dongbei, SOE’s everywhere in China are infamous strongholds – hold your ground and use your willingness to drink sometimes as a scarce and valuable face-building tool. If you’re only going to drink once in a while, make sure it’s with the Party Secretary, and make sure it’s after the deal gets approved.
On the other hand, if you can hold your liquor, go to Dongbei and start turning around SOE’s. No kidding.