Who To Pay For Dinner?

3 min read.

If you have been to a Chinese formal dinner, you will not be unfamiliar with the wrestling ritual at the end of each one, where everyone starts to fight over the bill simultaneously. Little known to outsiders, there are actually comprehensive strategies that Chinese business professionals adhere to when fighting to pay for a meal. We delve deeper into these unspoken norms, so that you can ace this wrestling ritual with grace and confidence the next time.

Photo credit: Mandarin House

Why Offer To Pay For A Chinese Meal?

First, it is important to understand why this ritual even occurs. In Chinese culture, offering to pay the bill at the end of a meal is regarded as an act of politeness. Moreover, Chinese people value interpersonal relationships dearly and buying someone a meal is often an indication of one’s enthusiasm towards maintaining ties with the other party or parties. The act is also seen as one of gifting, an integral part of Chinese culture. In Confucianism, individuals are encouraged to gift generously as an indication of the giver’s compassion and respect for the recipient, stemming from the belief that human beings have received an abundance of gifts from both heaven and earth, and should pass this kindness on to others.

However, while there are many great gift options to choose from, giving an inappropriate gift is counter-productive, as it can appear insulting and ruin your relationship with the receiver. As the Chinese proverb goes, “千里送鵝毛” (qiān lǐ sòng é máo) or “a swan feather gifted from a thousand mile away”; a good gift may be light, but it is indicative of the solid relationship between the giver and receiver. Buying someone a meal is exactly that, a polite and simple gesture that demonstrates your respect for the relationship and your keenness in maintaining it going forward.

General Guidelines

As a general rule of thumb, you are expected to pay in the following scenarios:

  1. You are asking someone at the table for a favor.
  2. You are trying to get in someone’s good graces.
  3. You are extending an apology or gratitude.
  4. You have previously hinted that you had something major to celebrate.
  5. You have the most senior position at the table.

However, you should always offer to pay out of courtesy in any given situation, even if you are not serious about paying. Generally, you should offer twice, or thrice if the meal is expensive. This means that even if the person rejects your offer to pay the first time, you should persist to pay for a few more times before giving up. In the Western society and other cultures, it may seem like a waste of time but for the Chinese, it shows sincerity and effectively strokes everyone’s ego. Mild verbal protests and gestures are acceptable in business settings, but refrain from shoving other parties or sneaking money into their belongings.

If you are insistent on paying, you should grab the check quickly and be ready to present your credit card or cash ahead of everyone else. If others protest, you can provide reasons as to why others should let you pay, such as “let me treat you please, I just got a pay raise” or “I will get the bill this time, you can buy me a fancier meal later”. If permitted under company policy, you can even include your guest’s company’s name on the receipt when you are making the payment; this enables them to be reimbursed by their company, while simultaneously awarding you with free brownie points!

If you are serious about paying but want to avoid the wrestling ritual, you may opt for the ‘secretive payment’ method at three different points throughout the meal:

  1. Before the meal starts: arrive at the restaurant early, order the dishes and make payment before the other guests stroll in. If you do this, make sure to figure out the dietary preferences of your key guests beforehand.
  2. During the meal: excuse yourself to “use the restroom” or “take a phone call in the hallway” and secretly pay the bill. However, note that this is a common tactic and you may be easily spotted.
  3. After the meal and before the wrestling ritual begins: similarly, excuse yourself to “use the restroom” or “take a phone call in the hallway” and secretly pay the bill without others noticing.

No matter when you choose to adopt this strategy, it is definitely a great move to use in a business setting as it is hassle-free and guarantees a win.

The last tactic involves some teamwork between the main host (主陪) and the assistant host (副陪). In a typical Chinese dinner table setting, the main host sits at the 12 o’clock position, whereas the assistant host sits at the 6 o’clock position, which is also the seat closest to the door. This strategic seating arrangement allows the assistant host to exit quickly and pay the bill before anyone else does.

If You Fail To Pay For The Meal…

If you do not end up paying for the meal even after giving it your best shot, politely thank the “winner” by saying something like “多谢你,你太客气了” (duō xiè nǐ, nǐ tài kè qì le) or “many thanks, you are really kind.” Bear in mind that you will be expected to pick up the tab next time, as per the Chinese saying “礼尚往来” (lǐ shàng wǎng lái), which translates to “courtesy demands reciprocity.” To do this, you can say something like “下次我请你吧” (xià cì wǒ qǐng nǐ ba) or “下次一定让我来” (xià cì yí dìng ràng wǒ lái) which means “let me treat you the next time”.

In reality, there are many nuances that can arise from different contexts; hence, it is important to always remain alert to your surroundings during a Chinese formal dinner and apply the aforementioned strategies on a case-to-case basis based on your unique situation. While the complexities of this practice may seem daunting initially, you will soon get the hang of it after trying it out a couple of times.