Business meal etiquette in five Asian countries

6 Nov 2013 by ReggieHo

People\\\\'s Republic of ChinaPeople's Republic of China

Hosting an elaborate meal in a private room at a restaurant is the most common way to talk shop in Mainland China. It's all about "face" – the host wants to show off his/her taste for extravagance while guests are to show awe.

Eat: In China, people think nothing of eating a whole roasted pigeon with the head still attached, or a braised sea cucumber that to the untrained eater is literally hard to swallow. If you want to get out of confronting these challenging dishes, you may need to make up a lie about food allergies.

Drink: Sometimes very strong and pungent Chinese liquors are served at client dinners. Turning down a drink is considered disrespectful, especially by people from older generations. Again, you might have to lie that you have a serious medical condition if you want to avoid that dilemma. Western wine is increasingly popular in China, and very expensive vintages are served to impress. If you know your wines, do show off a little (but not too much) as your host might be intrigued.  

Wear: European fashion brands are revered in China, especially Italian and French ones. But you don't want to upstage your host either, so try not to be too showy and go for a subtle dark suit. For women, conservative pantsuits and suit dresses would work best.

How: The Chinese use chopsticks to eat and porcelain spoons for soup. To eat the rice, gently press the edge of the bowl against your lips and use the chopsticks to push the content into your mouth. Traditionally dishes are put in the middle of the table for sharing. You're likely to be given two pairs of chopsticks – one for picking food from the communal plate, and another for eating from your own plate.


Client dinners are common in Japan, and if things go well, your host is likely to invite you to extend the evening to a nightout of drinking afterwards. Do try to stay out with the host at least a bit if you want to make a good impression, as the Japanese, who work very hard, do like to go out and unwind, and they also see it as relationship building. 

Eat: The Japanese are proud of their cuisine and you are likely to be invited to go to a Japanese restaurant. Sushi and sashimi are very likely to be served, so if you cannot handle raw fish, do politely let the host know in advance. 

Drink: Sake (Japanese rice wine) is the most common drink. It is poured into a small cup before consumption. But do not pour your own cup if you are a guest - it is something the host takes honour to do. If it is a big table, wait for the waitstaff to pour it for you. Pace yourself - sake can taste quite smooth but it can also get you drunk fast. Do not say "chin chin" at all cost, as it is slang for the male genitalia in Japanese. Say "kanpai" when you make a toast.

Wear: The smart casual look hasn't quite caught on in Japan's business world. Always go for a suit with necktie when attending a business dinner. For women, the dress suit or pantsuit would work best in these occasions.

How: Wooden chopsticks are used as utensil. The correct way to eat sushi is to smear a small amount of wasabi onto the fish meat, pick the whole thing up, quickly flip it over and dip the fish - not the rice - into the soysauce before eating it in one bite. Contrary to Western etiquette, the Japanese make slurping sounds when eating noodles to show that they enjoy the food. With miso soup, pick up the bowl, stir it with the chopsticks gently and then drink it while pressing the bowl against your lips.


Indians rarely do business with people they do not trust, and dining and entertainment is always a big part of building a rapport. 

Eat: Not all Indians eat meat, while some may only eat meat on particular days due to religious practices. Not all Indian dishes are spicy, so if you cannot handle too much spice, there should always be milder options to choose from. Do let your host know in advance.

Drink: Some Indians don't touch alcohol while others will drink like fish. The safest bet is to follow your host's lead. Beer is likely to be the drink of choice.

Wear: Indian weather is generally hot and humid for much of the year, so a full suit is not necessary. But a necktie and a shirt, with dress trousers, are expected for men while a blouse and a knee-length skirt are norms for women.

How: Fork, knife and spoon are common but many dishes are eaten with hands, especially curry with Indian breads - so roll up your sleeves and get ready.

South KoreaSouth Korea

When you travel to this country, you will find the people very approachable and keen to help, but when conducting business meetings, South Koreans are very formal, and it takes time to gain trust. Client dinners are a good way to break the ice.

Eat: While there is no shortage of foreign restaurants in South Korea, especially in big cities, Koreans are patriotic about their food. You're likely to be taken out to gogigui, Korean barbecue (see below).

Drink: The national drink of soju, distilled from various types of grain such as barley and wheat, is the most common beverage at dinners, and it is strong (and taste so). Unlike the Japanese, who use very delicate porcelain cups to drink sake, Koreans drink soju very casually, often from just a water glass. 

Wear: Despite its being a technologically advanced country, South Korea is rather conservative in culture. Formal business attire, including a suit and a tie, is best for standard business dealings with Koreans. 

How: At a gogigui dinner, diners cook their own food - marinated meat, seafood and vegetables - on the hot plate in the middle of the table. The wood chopsticks are for cooking, and the metal ones are what you use to eat. Before each meal, little bowls of kimchi (pickled vegetables and seafood) are served. They are put in the middle of the table for sharing. Communal chopsticks are not usually provided, and you just use your own to pick up food, but do not stir the shared dishes.


Thais are very easy going, and they also understand Western mannerisms given that their country is one of the most visited in the world. But they are also a very gentle people, so being extra polite would be conducive to foster a good relationship.

Eat: Thai food can be very different from region to region, and spices can range from mild to fiery. If you cannot take food that is too hot, do let your host know - there are always options that can suit your palate.

Drink: Beer is commonly served at Thai meals but the best drink to complement the cuisine is actually whisky soda. Wines are served in upscale restaurants, and given the spiciness of the food you might want to choose something slightly sweet such as riseling. In some cases, the spicy palate of shiraz complements some Thai dishes.

Wear: Presentation is important to Thais, so businesswear tends to be more formal than one would expect from such relaxed people, especially considering the hot and humid climate.

How: Thai food is always served already chopped or portioned, so Thais traditionally only eat with a fork and a spoon. In some cases, you might need to use your hands, such as larb, which is spicy minced meat eaten wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves.

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