Researching local cultures and differences in etiquette is an essential part of working with clients and colleagues around the world, but there is one area that it is easy to neglect – food and drink.
In this article, we go beyond the essential etiquette groundwork to look at this all-important variable. When should you factor in food and refreshments to keep your business relationships healthy and happy?
Refresh and Revive to Keep Meetings on Track
For any business meeting, it is essential to offer water or some other form of liquid refreshment to keep your guests hydrated and alert – which is good manners, pure and simple. If your meeting is going to run over the course of a few hours, a break is an ideal time to stop for a cup of tea or coffee and a bathroom break – and it gives everyone a few minutes to relax, have an informal chat or clear their minds. And of course, if you are deep in business-related conversation for hours on end, regular breaks and a stop for lunch are kind to your guests (as well as yourselves!).
A few light bites can help carry you through to lunch or dinner and fuel your negotiations. Biscuits, pastries and fruit work well in many cultures, and sometimes a more specific local speciality may be offered, such as dates in some parts of the Middle East. Whatever you choose, keep in mind your wider cross-cultural understanding of your visitor’s culture (including religious and ethical values) so that you can avoid any accidental offence.
Ultimately, a meeting room is a place for talking business, discussing options and planning future projects. Light refreshments are common almost anywhere you travel, but an extensive lunch at the conference table is unlikely. A buffet lunch, with sandwiches and snacks, is a popular option in the UK to break the rhythm of the conversation for in-house team meetings. However, limp lettuce and soggy bread may not be the most charming offering for the visiting clients and overseas colleagues that you want to impress.
Tip: Try taking a step outside of the office to woo your overseas partners – it gives you the chance to showcase your town or city and its hidden treasures (and cuisines), and it helps to spice up a formal itinerary of meetings and deal-making. If you have a big pitch in the offing, it may be the memorable twist that helps you stand out from the crowd.
Combine Food and Business to Best Effect
Food has the power to bring people together across cultures – sharing a meal is a wonderful way to introduce people to your local culture (or experience theirs), connect through a shared appreciation of something universal, and learn more about the people you are working with. It also provides you with a leisurely opportunity to build a deeper relationship with the people who may become a big part of your professional life going forward.
The French love their food, and it is an integral part of French culture. However, while enjoying a multi-course meal and sampling the finest French wines may be an attractive part of doing business in France, it is unlikely to be the time or place to sign a contract or negotiate an agreement. Instead, the dinner table is where you can cement the kind of firm friendships that hold your growing business relationships together.
In Iceland, however, discussing business over dinner is considered quite normal – Icelanders are happy to mix a work conversation with a pleasurable meal. You may even be invited to dine with your colleague’s family during your visit. Expect to spend as much time, or more, talking business over a relaxed meal in Iceland as you do holed up in an office or meeting room.
Tip: Wherever you are in the world, look to a range of cross-cultural clues to assess the best approach to meetings. If, as in France and Germany, the business culture is quite formal, food may not become a significant part of the business experience until a more sociable lunch or evening event. This is when understanding local cultural norms and the nuances of local business etiquette will truly serve you well and help to enhance your standing with your new business partners.
Be Considerate and Plan Ahead to Strengthen Global Ties
Sharing meals and thoughtfully catering for meetings can help to fuel brilliant conversations, create long-lasting professional connections and welcome your colleagues to your country and its culture. Doing your homework also prepares you for any cross-cultural differences when hosting or visiting overseas – and your diligence should be appreciated by your colleagues.
Tip: A good general rule to follow is to offer light, minimal-mess refreshments in the boardroom to complement your deeper business conversations (such as tea, coffee and water, plus some fruit, pastries or biscuits), and save the lunch and dinner gatherings for building relationships – bearing in mind any local cultural considerations that may influence your plans.
Understanding the cultural values that are important to your clients and colleagues can make all the difference to your business’s prospects.