Chinese master Western table manners

Andy Mannhart teaching some of his Chinese customers the finer points of Western etiquette

A Swiss consultant has come to the aid of Chinese doing business with western companies by instructing them in European etiquette and table manners.

This content was published on October 29, 2005 - 10:18
Alexander Kuenzle,

Andy Mannhart told swissinfo he never imagined that he would one day be teaching the Chinese about dessert forks and wine glasses. Two years on, business is booming.

Through his extensive travels as a Singapore-based representative of Swiss hotel- and catering- firms, Mannhart had honed his knowledge of the Asian business world.

In the 1980s, Mannhart and his wife returned to Switzerland to start their own business. Leaving his wife in charge of the fledging company, Mannhart immediately set off for Asia, this time to sell on his own.

Increasingly, Chinese colleagues sought him out for practical advice on Western etiquette, particularly table manners.

Recognising a market niche, he set up shop in Shanghai, and has never looked back.

swissinfo: To Europeans the absence of table manners in China is somewhat amusing, even kind of liberating. Slurping soup and kids hacking up spaghetti would simply not be tolerated in Europe. Why is China so different?

Andy Mannhart: Manners in China depend quite a bit on the person's social class. But a great deal of know-how regarding manners was lost during the Cultural Revolution. In addition, there was often little in the way of international contact, as the country was virtually sealed off for decades.

Today the Chinese simply concern themselves with the sheer act of getting something to eat. Thus a "service" culture is lacking. The notion of being polite, friendly, anticipating needs - that has not yet returned, which is hardly surprising, considering the government dictated what profession people would enter, irrespective of what they themselves wanted.

Even so, many Chinese are beginning to sense that acquiring manners is important for their future. The demand is enormous.

swissinfo: What is the key problem with manners in China, from our point-of-view?

A.M.: As I see it, spitting. It's very difficult to tackle. The very same person who navigates chaotically and life-threateningly through the streets, then spits on the floor in a restaurant, will shortly thereafter bow reverentially before his teacher.

My clients have to struggle tremendously to change this habit. After all, for more than 20 years spitting has been seen as perfectly normal behaviour.

swissinfo: Who is more capable of adapting, Chinese men or Chinese women?

A.M.: Women, definitely.

More women also enrol in my courses. They pretty much know that comportment can be learned. Many already know a lot from watching Western films. They just don't always know "how".

swissinfo: What is one of your etiquette courses like?

A.M.: We have two beautifully decorated classrooms in an office building. To start, I show a film of a Swiss couple at dinner. Afterwards there's a discussion of what took place. That's followed by an introduction to various types of Western restaurants.

How can a Chinese be expected to know what kind of glass is used for red wine, and which fork is a dessert fork? So we have an enormous cutlery service at our disposal, to introduce them to the many different types of forks, knives, glasses and so on that they might encounter.

Next, we eat correctly through a complete four-course menu. Another thing we go over is the right way to eat bread, which the Chinese don't know.

swissinfo: What should someone do if they don't understand the menu?

A.M.: If you think about it, why would a Chinese be able to understand a European menu? Even if they speak fluent English, they won't be able to figure out what "Wiener schnitzel", "Rossini" or "Stroganoff" are.

I advise my clients to follow the recommendations of the waiter, rather than just point at an unknown dish listed on the menu and risk disappointment.

swissinfo: What will you do once the Chinese business elite has mastered the use of knives and forks?

A.M.: Given the sheer size of China, I won't experience that. But, thanks to my wife, we're going to be expanding our range of courses in Shanghai.

The Chinese not only like to eat Western food, they're also interested in learning how to cook it - the men too. So we're going to offer basic cooking courses.

Also in the planning is a home economics school, set up according to Swiss standards.

Key facts

Andy Mannhart, 52, is an Asia expert.
He emigrated to Australia when he was 22.
An experienced salesman for Swiss hotel and catering firms, he returned to Switzerland with his wife in 1985 and set up a firm.
After 20 years the Mannharts sold "Andy Mannhart AG".
They then founded "Andy Mannhart Business Consultancy (Shanghai) Co".
Soon the Mannharts will offer basic cooking courses and open a home economics school in Shanghai.

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