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How I Get It Done

What The Chinese Business Ritual Of Tea Time Could Do For Your Business

When visiting China, Rex Kuo and Charles Ng of Australia-based Orbitkey learned a warmer way of doing business.

What The Chinese Business Ritual Of Tea Time Could Do For Your Business
[Photo: Flickr user Takumi Yoshida]

When Rex Kuo and Charles Ng began to build their company, Orbitkey, which sells a kind of futuristic key ring, they found themselves taking a lot of meetings with suppliers in China. They found business was done quite differently there than in Australia (where Orbitkey is based).

One ritual in particular stood out. Everywhere they went, every factory they visited, Kuo and Ng were soon invited to sit around an enormous table and partake of tea. And though the tea ritual was ubiquitous, it was also unique in each case. Each business owner took pride in his particular way of washing teacups, or in boasting about her particular brand of tea from the mountains of Taiwan. The whole ritual was warm and familial: "It was like an ice-breaker," notes Kuo.

Kuo and Ng returned to Australia, just the two of them working out of Kuo’s parents’ home. "It almost started as a joke," recalls Kuo. But soon, one of them said, "Wouldn’t it be cool if we had our own tea set?" There was something dainty, cute, and inherently civilized about the idea. So Kuo and Ng rustled up a terracotta pot and wooden tray, and started cribbing teas from Kuo’s parents (Taiwanese in origin, they were already aficionados). They adopted other Chinese tea habits: Pouring for the other when the cup ran dry, knocking on the table to express thanks for the pour. Soon, genmaicha, a Japanese green tea with roasted rice, became the favorite.

Soon, Ng and Kuo brought on an intern, and for a moment there was a question of whether he might look at them askance for their tea habit. The intern, it turned out, wasn’t much of a coffee person anyway, and he readily embraced this less conventional form of caffeination. The intern soon became an employee, and then another hire joined the team. Orbitkey moved to an office outside of the Kuo household.

In the turmoil of that move, Ng and Kuo forgot about the tea set. A month went by at the new offices with the team subsisting on Lipton packets. As the weeks wore on, though, the growing team found that communication was flagging among members; people simply got too caught up in their own work. Ng and Kuo resolved to hold a meeting each morning to get everyone on the same page, but they kept forgetting. "Finally," recalls Ng, "we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we bring the tea set back into the picture?’"

The Orbitkey gang soon instituted a daily ritual: a morning "tea time," complete with a rotating host, or "tea master." The day’s tea master selects the tea, or may even blend it himself from a selection of leaves, then presents it to the group. If nothing else, it’s a nice enticement. "Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to have a meeting,’ it’s, ‘Hey, we’ve got to have tea time,’" says Kuo.

Soon, Kuo and Ng found there were ancillary benefits to tea time, besides the more obvious ones of communication and caffeine. Kuo soon discovered that to serve as tea master was also to practice sales skills. "When you’re the tea master, you have to sell the tea to everyone," he says. He’d study the back of the packaging to learn all about it, and then make up whatever he wanted, for fun. "You try to be enthusiastic about it," he says. "I would say, for example, ‘This tea is from my ancestors in Switzerland, and it has to be brewed at exactly 98 degrees.'"

"I thought that was the truth!" jokes Ng.

"I think I have ancestors in all parts of the world by now. I use that line quite a bit," laughs Kuo.

Ng, serving as tea master recently, joked that he had grown that day’s tea in his own yard. But that was true, in fact, of one of the suppliers they had visited in China.

"The tea wasn’t very strong," recalls Kuo. "Tasteless," concurs Ng.

Becoming a talented tea master entails a growth curve. One new member of the team put far too much tea into the pot, causing an undrinkable bitter brew. The rest of the team still hasn’t let him live it down.

So is there an element, then, of what we might term "tea hazing"?

"I guess so," admits Kuo. "A little bit."

Ultimately, though, tea time has been the exact opposite of hazing: an occasion for members of the team to bond, come together, and develop new skills. Kuo and Ng say they want everything they do to have a personal and warm touch; the daily tea ritual is a way to "ingrain that warm, family-like culture in every single one of the team members," says Kuo.

They feel convinced that same effect just wouldn’t happen around a pot of coffee.

There's something built in to the nature of tea, says Kuo, "a sharing aspect."

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