The Chinese Take Their Etiquette Seriously

Many have riches; now they want Western manners. First step: Don’t rattle the teacup | “If table conversation does not come naturally to you, you can prepare a list of questions beforehand”

Christina Larson


“Do you know how to stir your tea, ladies?” Two Chinese women, ages 19 and 23, are seated on a handsome sofa in a 31st-floor hotel suite in downtown Beijing with views of Ritan Park and monument-lined Chang’an Avenue. They sit demurely with their knees together, legs crossed at the ankles — not over the thighs — as instructed. Each holds a black spiral notebook in her lap. They delicately drop lumps of sugar into gold-rimmed teacups, then clank their spoons lightly on the rims.

“Both of you are stirring incorrectly. It should be front and back, not in a circle,” says their instructor, Sara Jane Ho, a 27-year-old Hong Kong native and Harvard Business School graduate. “And no noise. Remember, ladies, don’t make noise.”

The two pupils, Jocelyn and Joyce, nod and scribble in their notebooks. (For their families’ privacy, they declined to give their full names.) For 10 days in May they were enrolled in a “debutante” course at Ho’s newly launched Institute Sarita in Beijing. The school teaches China’s nouveaux riches Western etiquette and a range of social graces, from how to host parties to the correct pronunciation of luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton. Most, but not all, of Ho’s students are women, and many are business owners. Prices run from 20,000 yuan ($3,260) for a two-day dining etiquette course to 100,000 yuan for a 12-day hostessing course.

The hunger in China to learn Western manners is driven as much by the desire to expand overseas business ties as it is to solidify social standing at home. Government and industry groups have requested Ho’s services to train bureaucrats and executives before trips abroad. The hope is that China’s future workers and businesses can compete in the global workplace not only on the basis of low wages, but also as investors and dealmakers. China’s domestic brands also want to find foreign markets. The first step is cultivating international contacts. And that starts with learning how Westerners eat and dress.

The focus of this tutorial is table conversation. “As a hostess, you have to direct the conversation and give everyone an opportunity to shine,” Ho says. “If table conversation does not come naturally to you, you can prepare a list of questions beforehand to ask.” Ho’s lesson contradicts Chinese conversational norms, which tolerate long silences (as well as extreme nosiness). Ho also uses lessons from an HBS leadership class she took to teach women how to “stand up for yourself” on bad dates. That’s not so intuitive in a society that avoids confrontation and directly saying “no.” (Often in China, “perhaps” means “no.”)

In some ways, China resembles America in the 1920s. That era in the U.S. witnessed “profound social change, with new migrants moving into cities and many people looking for ways to fit in,” says Karen Stohr, a senior research scholar at Georgetown and author of On Manners. “People were very anxious for advice.” Emily Post offered that advice in her 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home. In 1950 she was named in a survey of female reporters as the U.S.’s most influential woman after Eleanor Roosevelt.

The hunger for cosmopolitan polish is increasing as the Chinese travel more. In 2000, Chinese tourists made 10 million international trips; by 2012 that number had grown to 83 million, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Vice Premier Wang Yang recently bemoaned the behavior of Chinese tourists abroad, state-run Xinhua newswire reported. “They speak loudly in public, carve characters on tourist attractions, cross the road when the traffic lights are still red, and spit anywhere, damaging the international image of the Chinese people,” he said. Beijing cultural essayist Lijia Zhang adds, “Chinese people who go abroad have money but don’t naturally have manners.” She recalls that when she moved to Britain for a stretch in 1990, she at first spoke loudly and failed to hold doors open for others.

Since the school opened in March, Ho says, the majority of students have been women in their 40s who are business owners or partners in their husbands’ businesses. All hope to expand their ties abroad. One runs a supermarket chain in Chongqing and wants to cultivate relationships so she can stock more Western brands. “My students are mostly working women whose own mothers never taught them these things,” Ho says.

The All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce hired Ho in May to teach 15 entrepreneurs, half of them men. In March, China’s Commerce Ministry invited Ho’s business partner, Rebecca Li, to teach officials heading abroad for work the finer points of Western dress and dining.

Cynthia Lett, principal of the Lett Group in Silver Spring, Md., offers business etiquette and cross-cultural training for U.S. officials going overseas and foreign delegations visiting Washington. Her business from Chinese officials and corporate leaders has increased steadily. “The Chinese are very meticulous,” Lett says, “and they want a cheat sheet for everything.” After that, they want to go to Nordstrom Rack for bargain luxury shopping. “Usually the men come with shopping lists from their wives, so that part of the culture is the same.”

The bottom line The desire to learn the finer points of Western dress and dining is growing, as 83 million Chinese traveled abroad last year.


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