August 10, 2022 | 04:46 AM

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14.04.2011Could How You Eat Make Or Break Your International Business Deal?

The way in which we eat could make or break an international business deal.


“Don’t take two sips of your tea before returning the tea cup to the saucer,” this is only one of many rules being sent out to guests of Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s wedding. In other words, this is a royal wedding so don’t act like a pig.

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I watched the news in amusement, as they discussed details from the royal wedding preparation and it made me question whether the way in which we eat could make or break an international business deal.

When it comes to business transactions, an appreciation for the food and eating habits of different cultures, could be the key to faster sales; especially when these eating habits differ so drastically per culture and region.

Just in America, a quick walk through China town in New York City will reveal authentic Chinese restaurants with what looks like cooked ducks—with their heads still on and lifeless eyes staring back at you—dangling from the windows.  Eww, you may think. Ahh, their Chinese buyers may exclaim.

Then there’s Saudi Arabia, where you may be expected to pass food using the left hand (it is seen to be more hygienic as you can only imagine the tons of things you do with your right hand).

There’s also the drinking etiquette to explore. I recall cocktails at my French girlfriend’s house and how she would gently scold me, “leave a little bit of wine in your glass if you don’t want more Cheryl, that way I know not to pour.”

When doing business abroad, you may not be expected to like everyone’s eating choices, but you will be expected to respect them if you want to do business.

Although Americans are not such sticklers for rules, we do have rules here too.  For example, when you attend a business dinner and the food is served, it’s considered rude to start eating if everyone at your table hasn’t been served.

My corporate executive recruiter friend once admitted that he didn’t offer a potential hire an executive-level job because the potential employee lacked eating etiquette. “We close most of our sales over lunch, dinner and cocktails,” he said.  “How was I supposed to hire a guy who is obviously not comfortable in that type of setting?”

Since eating etiquette teaches you so much about different cultures and how they do business, it makes sense to learn the rules before negotiating an international business deal.

On refusing food. In some countries, you can forget about doing business if you don’t sit down and eat.  According to London-based Today Translations, in Italy, a business deal can take place over a lunch that lasts for three hours.  Can you imagine refusing lunch and still being able to close your deal?

In most parts of West Africa, you may be offered food so that your business prospect gets to learn more about you.  In this part of the world, business is also part personal.  Most times, deals are closed while socializing.  Refusing food in most West African countries is an indication that you don’t intend to be sociable.

On how you eat.  In her book, The Trump Card,  Ivanka Trump describes her eating experience at a business meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan.   She had been served two local specialties: besbarmak (boiled horse meat) and shubat (fermented camel’s milk).

“If I’d freaked out and pushed my plate away,” she wrote, “I would have embarrassed my hosts and damaged a relationship I’d flown halfway around the world to strengthen.  Sampling (almost) everything they had to offer demonstrated respect—the one true global currency.”

You may not be expected to enjoy every single traditional dish from another country.  However, your potential business partners may expect some dining courtesy.

On how much you eat.  Remember the movie, Last Holiday with Queen Latifah, when French Chef Didier is annoyed at the group that keeps requesting additions and subtractions from his menu, while returning half-eaten plates of food?

Not completing your meal may leave your international chef or host feeling insecure or unappreciated like Chef Didier.

A similar scenario unfolded during my dining experience at a French restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Our waiter was from Cote d’Ivoire.

My husband had ordered the lobster bisque but he didn’t care for the seasoning.  So his bisque was half-finished when the waiter brought the entrées.  We didn’t pay any attention to this and continued our conversation but the concerned waiter was adamant about making sure we were satisfied.  He even brought out the French chef who offered another appetizer.

We were so caught off guard by this that I decided to learn more from our waiter.  We then learned that incomplete meals were a sign that they needed to do more, and that his West African/French background necessitated that he delve further into the matter.  After that, we only sent back empty plates to our nice chef.

On how you finish eating.  As if it isn’t difficult enough trying to keep up with the eating rules associated with various cultures, there are the after-eating rules to also keep in mind.

In most countries the meal before the business deal may be a long affair.  Patrick Symmes mentions this in his essay, The Cabin of My Dreams—one of the things he loved about Argentina was the  “willingness to linger over a meal.”

Since your host usually follows your lead, indicating that you’re actually done eating, may let your host know that you don’t want additional helpings and that you’re ready to discuss business.

For instance:  in China, once you’re done eating, you’re supposed to place chopsticks horizontally on your plate.  In France, you’re advised to place your knife and fork in the middle of the plate after eating.  By not doing this in some areas, you may find yourself in the middle of hours of conversation, plates of food, and a postponed business conversation.

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