It’s time to ditch the board room and reach for the chopsticks – Sheffield businessmen brush up on Chinese table etiquette to secure millions’ worth of business with China.
More than £20m worth of goods are exported to China every year from Sheffield alone.
And as China grows, so too will that figure.
So it’s for this reason that Sheffield’s businessmen will soon swotting up on their table manners.
Yes, table manners.
Sheffield’s Confucius Institute – a society dedicated to teaching people about Chinese culture – has started a training programme for business people in Chinese etiquette.
The programme is in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, and takes place over one day, with lessons in basic Mandarin in the morning and workshops about Chinese culture in the afternoon.
Professor Li Xiao, the Confucius Institute’s deputy director, said: “We teach people the cultural dos and don’ts. It’s helpful for businessmen to be aware of China’s cultural traits, as it looks like you’ve taken the time to care.”
And eating, it seems, is at the heart of it all.
“Food is very important in China and any kind of social gathering will involve eating.”
But it’s not quite as simple as that.
“When you have a business meeting in a restaurant in China the most important guest is seated first, and the least important guest is seated last – hierarchy is closely observed. Guests are usually shown to their seats by the host.”
“The quality of a host is often judged by the food that’s left on the table. The more food left at the table, the better the host because it shows that they have been generous in providing more than enough.”
But there’s another stipulation where food’s concerned.
“Unlike England, where you pick items from the centre of the table and put them onto your own plate, in China it’s more often than not the host who does that.
“A good host will notice that you need more food on your plate, or more drink before you even realise you’re thirsty.”
Sheffield businessman Nicholas Patrick, head of the International Trade Centre of South Yorkshire, recalls one incident with food etiquette in China.
“It’s important to eat everything that’s put in front of you in China. And one time I was over there I was being taken out for a meal by a very prestigious and important businessman.
“We were meeting for lunch at a shellfish restaurant, so I told my agent to cancel all my meetings until 10am the next morning, as I am allergic to shellfish. I also told him to warn the businessman that I may have to leave rather promptly.”
But sickness aside, it’s better than the alternative, as Nick explains.
“I had a call from an agent in Hong Kong about a colleague who was based out there. He said ‘don’t bring this man back here ever again, he has upset three businessmen’. I later discovered what he’d done and basically he just couldn’t eat the food over there.”
Embracing Chinese customs and culture is certainly worth it for Sheffield businessmen -
China’s on the rise, at an exponential rate. And along with China’s growth is an opportunity for Sheffield to grow too.
“China is a major player in global business,” says Nick. “This growth is driven by the fact is has the largest consumer population and its economy is growing significantly.”
No business, according to Nick, can afford to ignore it.
“If businesses don’t get a foothold in the Chinese market then their goods will eventually be replicated there. Unless a product is technically superior, the Chinese will make it themselves.”
But it’s not just food that’s central to business in China.
Gift-giving is also a complex phenomena, central to many business transactions.
Li says: “Many business meetings involve gifts. And if a VIP from Britain gives a gift it will be expected that the gift is of high value and significant to the local area, like Blue John jewellery or steel products from Sheffield.”
But don’t expect the recipient to unwrap it in front of you.
“In China you’re not supposed to open a present there and then. We’d just say ‘thank you’ and take it home.”
But that’s not all businessmen have to learn.
Handshaking in the right manner is also important, according to Li.
“There isn’t much physical contact in China in public,” says Li. “But it has got better than it used to be. But you wouldn’t hug or kiss someone you were meeting on a business trip.”
Instead, she demonstrates a gentle handshake.
“You would shake hands loosely, like this.” She shakes my hand with a loose grip – nothing like the handshake we experience in the UK.
“And while you do it subtly lower your head.” She moves in a manner as if to resemble a subtle bow.
“The other thing to remember is that the guest must always go first, but sometimes politeness takes over and both parties end up standing there with nobody making the first move. Each party is saying ‘you go first’, ‘no, you go first...”
“Really,” says Li. “The Chinese just want to be very friendly and show their hospitality. That’s what it’s all about.”
Just make sure you eat your food. It is, after all, worth about £20m worth of business.
* The Confucius Institute is a public institution associated with the Government of the People’s Republic of China.
* The aim of the Confucius Institute is to promote Chinese language and culture.
* The Confucius Institute’s headquarters are in Beijing.
* The organisation is named after the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC).
* Interest in Chinese culture and Mandarin is growing, with an estimated 5000 people learning Mandarin in Sheffield, according to the Confucius Institute.
* China is one of the top ten countries that Sheffield exports to.