Last week, a coworker, my boss and I went on a 4-day business trip to China.

It was fun, for the most part. However, things got rather awkward when our business partners took us out to dinner. They would take us to those karaoke places where they had many young women "serving" you(ie., they'd pour us wine, sing with us, etc)

The whole thing made me extremely uncomfortable. I'm in my mid-twenties, but I personally don't think this sort of things are business-appropriate(not to mention I already have a girlfriend at home, who'd probably kill me if she knew!)

Anyway, the business is on going, so we are expected to have these trips quite frequently in next few years!

Should I tell my boss I do NOT want to attend these "social" events? How do I put it nicely, professionally and most importantly convincingly?

I don't want to get pulled of the project as it is my first major project in my career!

  • Are there any women in your team?
    – Brandin
    Aug 18 '14 at 11:10
  • 1
    It sounds like you were taken to a KTV. This isn't that uncommon, it seems. Aug 18 '14 at 12:40
  • @MonicaCello I am deleting my answer because I'd rather delete it than change my opinion. The OP had not edited his post to meet my objection. I have no objection to the OP stating that he is uncomfortable. But the OP's description as "I think it's not business appropriate to me" is simply not acceptable to me. He cannot go around imposing his cultural relativism on others. Period. Aug 18 '14 at 22:14
  • Vietnhi Phuvanmail: I didn't get a chance to read your answer, but thanks for answering. To your point, I'm not imposing my opinions on the world. All I'm saying is that I wish not to attend the events with my colleagues. (Heck, I probably wouldn't mind, if not enjoy, going to those if I were on my on sight-seeing China!)
    – JasonK
    Aug 19 '14 at 22:49

I have been working in a similar culture for the past two years and based on my experience i would say it's hard to stop these things from happening if you don't speak up they simply assume this is what you are looking for in one way or another.

Usually whenever i have such business meetings overseas, i fill my schedule outside office hours with activities i enjoy, sightseeing, museums, shopping ...etc whatever is interesting to you, I keep a slot for a dinner the first day or two since most likely they will offer a dinner after work, after dinner if they come up with a plan that i don't feel comfortable with i tell them that i'm busy doing XXX and ask them to join if they want to, once you repeat this pattern for 3-5 times, they tend to understand what is interesting to you and slowly they will start to come up with things that you really wanna see/do.

At the end, keep in mind they are doing their effort to make you feel good and enjoy your trip, so you just need to give them some hints on what you really like.

  • 1
    +1 for not passing judgment and being tactful. I'll just note that the OP can't tell their boss they're not available for dinner because they're sight-seeing. If it's dinner, the only excuse that I can come up with is an allergy to MSG or something similar. Aug 18 '14 at 11:34
  • @VietnhiPhuvanmail yeah as i suggested, i would join a dinner for the first day or two but i guess whatever goes after dinner is a personal taste whether i feel like doing it or pass for other plans.
    – trrrrrrm
    Aug 18 '14 at 15:17
  • 1
    Even other plans such as "I am jet lagged and I need to go to sleep" will do fine. Aug 18 '14 at 15:35
  1. The goal of doing business there is to get business/keep the customer(s)
  2. Telling customers how to act does not have the best chance of achieving those goals
  3. If you feel uncomfortable, you need to leave the ultimate decision to your boss

Getting business

Your company is in China to get business. You were brought because they think you can help accomplish that goal. If you are sent to China by your company, they expect you to forward that goal, and definitely do not expect you to torpedo it.

If you feel uncomfortable to the point where you don't think you can accomplish that goal given your recent experience, then that is definitely an issue that your company likely wants to know about.

You can't control customers

Generally speaking, telling customers that they need to change their behavior, doesn't go over well (regardless of culture). Telling Chinese customer who was the host and treated you to a night out that they were acting inappropriately is going to go over ever worse. As far as business in Asia goes, this sounds relatively tame, which makes it even more difficult to have a discussion about.

So if you're feeling uncomfortable, telling the customer is probably the wrong way to go about it.

This is a decision for your boss

You don't feel you can achieve your company's goals. Telling the customer is unlikely to remove the uncomfortableness, and probably won't do a good job at achieving your company's goals either. You need to let your company know.

I would sit down with my boss and say something along the lines of:

Hey boss, thanks for giving me the opportunity to go to China. I am really thankful that you thought I would be a benefit to helping improve our business here, and the experience was definitely a great one. While I enjoyed the business aspects, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the social aspects, particularly that bar we got taken to on Thursday. I didn't say anything at the time because I didn't want to risk the business or cause any problems when everyone was having a good time, but I would like to avoid situations like that in the future. What do you think is the best way to handle that?

The main points are:

  1. Let him know that you appreciate the opportunity
  2. Point out that you were uncomfortable with only a small portion of it
  3. Explain that you had the common sense not to raise a stink at the time
  4. Ask how to proceed

Realize that the answer may just be, "Don't come to China next time". At the end of the day, you need to give the information to your boss he needs to make a decision. You may not like the decision, but when you want to take a moral stand that could jeopardize business, that's the way the cookie crumbles. I know many people who refuse to do business trips to certain countries or regions (or anywhere at all) because it doesn't rub them right. And that's a decision you have to make for yourself, knowing full well it could have negative consequences for your career.

  • Thanks for taking time to answer my question. To your point, I'm NOT trying to control anybody. (I'm not exactly judging either) I do believe in tolerance of other cultures, but that does NOT mean I have to ignore what I personally believe in JUST to make people from other cultures happy.
    – JasonK
    Aug 19 '14 at 22:53

You could talk with your boss and ask what him what the expectations are going to be around future business trips as far as after work activities. You could also let him know that you thought the karaoke bar was a bit unexpected and guage his reaction.

For some businesses, it's common practice to take visiting guests out for some kind of entertainment. A friend of mine would be taken to strip clubs and the like because it was the 'cat's away' mentality. "You're away from your boring wife and now you can look at naked young women without her knowing."

In the best case your boss says you can skip those activities, in the worst case you only have to travel there infrequently. But as a woman, I appreciate your question regarding this.


Just think how uncomfortable those Chinese people would be if they visit your site and you take them to an organ concert in a church where they have to sit perfectly still and not say anything or even smile until they're out after 4 hours.
When you're in a different culture on business, you'd best humour your business partners and go with the flow. Maybe some polite hints that you'd like to see other kind of entertainment might give them an opportunity to show you other things in their area, but don't put it bluntly or rudely as it's bad for business (and remember, when you're traveling on business you're in function as long as you're in company of business partners, even if it's on paper a social gathering).

Maybe you invite them to dinner at your expense, and then ask them to suggest a quality restaurant? Or ask your hotel conscierge if there's a concert showing a style of music you like that you don't think would upset your hosts, and if so suggest to your partners that you'd like to invite them to that?
That's a good way to break the ice, show them what you like, and at the same time play the good business partner who returns the favour of paying for "social gatherings". But don't overdo it, as it's in many countries the hosts' duty to provide entertainment (so if they agree to go to that concert, but insist they pay, let them!).

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