ZHOU LI’S HABITS WERE EXPENSIVE. They’d already cost him two job promotions. At the time he’d blamed a lack of experience, or bad timing; even his boss’s logic. He even questioned whether the firm had ‘bamboo ceiling’, preventing a Chinese from moving up into top management within a German firm. But then, one afternoon, just after lunch, a brave colleague, newly arrived from the Frankfurt headquarters, pulled him aside and shared with Zhou Li an observation.
“You eat with your mouth open.”
“You slurp your tea.”
“And you even burp aloud, and often.”
At first Zhou Li denied the accusations. Then he began to defend them. Noisy eating is part of Chinese culture, he decried. Hey! It even made the food taste better. And this was China! What did this German know? He realised he was becoming defensive. Zhou Li left the office early.
The next day, while having lunch at the cafeteria, Zhou Li observed the partners. Not all were German; in fact, most were not. There were a few Brits, a couple of Americans, and one French. Wayne Wei, was Chinese, but had grown up in Australia. There were also six Chinese – all born in China – who sat in the corner, speaking Mandarin. All these groups comprised of partners that were all his superior, and all eating differently than he.
They ate with their mouths closed.
They didn’t slurp their tea or coffee.
And when they did burp, they did so discretely, and then even apologised.
Zhou Li stood up, cleared his tray, and went to find his boss. He had one important question, “Was his eating habits hindering his career growth?” Thomas, his German boss, was a little embarrassed at first. The question had come out of the blue, and Thomas was taken aback.
“Sit down,” said his boss. Zhou Li did so. There began a one hour conversation.
“The other partners were worried. Worried that if you were made partner, and attended one of these important dinners with our global clients, that you would embarrass the company; would embarrass them.”
“You’re a smart guy, but it takes more than smarts to succeed in this industry.You need to align with our brand. And our brand is about professionalism, which extends outside the formal meetings and presentations.”
“I guess we should have told you at the debriefings. But we were all a little embarrassed. It’s taken for granted that all partners have a multinational mindset.”
Zhou Li’s career had stagnated. And it was linked to poor dining etiquette. So that day, he decided to make a change. For the next few weeks in the cafeteria, he sat close to the other partners, mirroring their behaviour, while critiquing his own. It wasn’t easy. A couple of times he caught himself short, burping loudly, and noticed that a few partners turned his way. He found a table, next to a mirror, and observed how he ate, mouth open at first, and then slowly, with practice, closed and quiet. And in the tea room, he struck up a conversation with one of the partners, while they both sipped on a coffee – soundlessly.
Two months later Zhou Li’s habits had changed.
Six months later he was invited into his boss’s office.
Eight months later he was promoted to partner.
Such is the power of good, or bad, habits. Unfortunately for many Chinese working in multinational companies across China, as well as working abroad, they are limiting their success through a lack of self awareness of business etiquette. So do your part, and send this post to your own Zhou Lis, and help them revive their career.