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china 2007The first time I traveled to China, our Beijing office made sure our U.S.-based team was prepared to conduct business. Our staff wanted to spare us any embarrassment as the Chinese take their business meals quite seriously. The information on dining etiquette was especially helpful as business is often conducted over a meal, and that week was packed with luncheons and dinners. (*See tips at end of article.)

The University of Wisconsin – Madison earns a well-deserved reputation for drinking, but I’ll bet businesspeople in China could give them a run for their money. Drinking and toasting during business dinners is priority one, with wine as the drink of choice. For example, if your host ‘slams’ his glass, all at the table must follow. I don’t think anyone on my team ‘drank til they dropped,’ but we gave it our best in honoring the Chinese traditions.

There’s no doubt traditions are important. We’re now at the height of the holiday season, and most people will celebrate in one way or another – Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus.

One of the traditions I brought back from China to my family was the toast. When so many people are seated around a table that you cannot tap glasses with everyone, you ‘knock’ the bottom of your glass on the table several times, to indicate you are toasting with everyone.

We also have several traditions passed down from generation to generation. If your family is anything like mine, some revolve around food. In my mother’s family, we gather on Christmas Eve to eat a traditional eastern European (Slovak) dinner. During the years, the meal has undergone slight alterations. By a nearly unanimous vote (Grandma as the only nay), we eliminated one of the least favorite dishes–the poppyseed pudding. In the words of Padma Lakshmi, “Poppyseed Pudding, please pack your knives and go home.”

Other traditions have remained intact. One began only decades ago. After the gifts are opened and the torn wrapping paper and discarded bows cleaned away, we eagerly await one item. It is the final gift that probably means more than all the other gifts combined.

These are The Cones.

christmas cone boxThe Cones are Victorian-era designed 3-d cone boxes, marked with initials and filled by the dinner host. They only come out after the family sings our original ‘Cone Song.’ The small inexpensive gifts, usually from the dollar store, are a fun way to conclude the evening’s festivities. Some years the items are purposeful – one year we received tiny books, each one appropriate for the receiver. Other years the item is general – two years ago we all good-naturedly sported black moustaches, some also using them for eyebrows. It’s always a delightful way to end the evening.

Whatever your family does to celebrate the holidays – traditions, impromptu events or just calling to say hello – I wish you all the best in happiness, peace and joy for the New Year.



* 10 Golden Rules of Dining In China (circa 2007)nytimes chinese drinking

  1. Seating arrangements are extremely important. Ensure seating is by order of rank if possible. Sacred rule is never to seat your guests with their back facing the entrance. Instead, the most important seat is a seat that directly faces the door.
  2. When offering a toast, it is an important protocol to show respect. Standing up and making a toast shows ‘sincerity.’ When toasting, lower your cup as this demonstrates your guest has higher social standing than you do. It shows your deep understanding of Chinese Culture by this simple gesture.
  3. The protocol for the first toast is very important. Good health and prosperity is of profound importance in Chinese culture. Give your blessings when offering a toast. Saying something nice at each toast makes them happy! (Observe the “amount” of wine your guest consumes. It is culturally very important that if your guests does a bottoms-up on the first glass, you need to follow.)
  4. Out of respect for you, your host will order more food that you can consume. Culturally, they want to give you their best hospitality and this is measured by how much food they order on the table.
  5. A ‘quiet’ meal, means the atmosphere is not good and translated it means the guests are not happy. A common practice is for everyone to toast to each other all night.
  6. In China, there is a common saying, friendship comes first, business comes second. If this is your first time dining with your guests and you truly want to make true friendship, one way of making into their “inner circle” is to drink until you drop at least once.
  7. When you have had enough drinks and want to stop, remember, never flip your glass over as it is seen as extremely rude.
  8. In Chinese customs, Ying and Yang ( balance) is an important facet of life. If there are women guests on the table it is important to toast to them occasionally.
  9. During the meal, it is good for you and your team to take turns individually to toast the VIP. There is a joke they call this approach a ‘human wave’ strategy, one toast after another to show respect to your guest.
  10. Toasting each other across the table is a common practice throughout the meal. One good gesture is to ‘knock’ your glass on the glass rotary table to signify the gesture of you and your guests’ glasses touching each other.