Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Food
Making the Best Impression
Jack's boss has asked him to visit the organization's new office in China. He's excited about the opportunity, and is looking forward to getting to know his Chinese co-workers.
When he arrives, his Chinese host Ju-long arranges a welcome banquet in his honor. He walks into the restaurant "fashionably late," only to discover that, as the guest of honor, he was expected to be there early. As everyone sits down, he starts talking about business and takes a bite from each dish as soon as it's served, much to Ju-long's dismay.
Jack can tell that he's made a poor impression with his Chinese co-workers, but he's not sure why. The next day Ju-long is cold and distant, and he doesn't want to discuss how their people will work together.
Every culture has different values, expectations and social norms, particularly around food, and Jack could have made a much better impression if he'd taken time to understand them. Appreciating these differences can strengthen your reputation, build relationships, and open doors for both you and your organization.
In this article, we'll look at some of the common cultural differences in dining etiquette, and we'll explore tools and strategies you can use to avoid making faux pas.
The Importance of Cultural Awareness
Culture refers to the beliefs and customs of a specific group, ethnicity or nationality. It includes values, expectations, social norms, and etiquette, and it affects the way you process information and perceive the world.
Even if you don't live or work abroad, it's still important to learn the basic rules of cross-cultural business etiquette. You might work with a culturally diverse group, manage a geographically dispersed virtual team, or need to entertain a client, customer, supplier, or partner from a different country.
Demonstrating cultural intelligence means you show respect, make a great first impression, and open yourself up to new experiences, opportunities and friendships. It adds to your credibility, demonstrates empathy, builds trust and good relationships, and helps you and your organization achieve important goals. It also enables you to appreciate others' backgrounds and perspectives, and better understand the strengths and complexities that each person brings.
Differences to Consider
It's important to consider the following when it comes to understanding cultural differences in dining etiquette:
- Seating: many cultures have strict rules about who should sit where. For example, seating can be organized by age or seniority.
- Utensils: some cultures use utensils in certain ways, while others don't use them at all.
- Conversation: acceptable topics of conversation during dinner vary from culture to culture. For example, should you talk about business while eating, or is this bad form? Are some subjects off-limits?
- Body language and gestures: some people eat while sitting on the floor, while others find it distasteful to touch food with their hands.
- Arrival and departure: should you arrive early, on time or slightly late? Acceptable arrival and departure times vary, as well as mealtimes: it's common to eat dinner in some cultures at 10:00 p.m., while others start at around 6:00 p.m.
Common Cross-Cultural Differences
Table manners and expectations around the world can vary as widely as the types of food that people eat. For example, what's acceptable in one culture might offend someone from another, and a delicacy in one country could be frowned upon elsewhere.
This diversity is part of what makes living, working and traveling abroad so interesting. However, it also presents a number of challenges. Below are some examples of food faux pas that might cause offense:
- In Australia, a lot of relationship-building takes place in local pubs after work. Missing your turn to "shout for a round," or pay for drinks, will make a bad impression. In Japan, teams often strengthen relationships with drinks and karaoke at the end of the day.
- In France, you'll make a good impression by being enthusiastic about the food being served. Enjoy your meal, be vocal about it, and then talk about business. In Germany, on the other hand, it's common to discuss work before you eat.
- India is home to Hindus, who don't eat beef, and Muslims, who don't eat pork. Both of these groups expect you to handle food with your right hand only, as the left is considered "unclean."
- In Italy, it's common to be invited to a late dinner, which it's considered rude to decline.
- In some countries, including Israel, people may only be permitted to consume kosher foods that conform to Jewish food law, or "kashrut."
- Food is central to Malaysian culture; the common greeting "chiah pa bue" literally translates as "have you eaten?" However, a dinner invitation here might be slow to come. Show patience and wait, and avoid hosting your own meal until you've been a guest at someone else's.
- Alcohol is an important part of relationship building in many cultures, especially in Russia and South Korea. Here, you'll strengthen your reputation and impress your colleagues by "holding your own," but avoid drinking more than you feel comfortable with! Alcohol is only served in restaurants in countries like the United Arab Emirates, and it's illegal in Saudi Arabia.
- The quality of food also matters in many cultures. In Spain, for example, knowledge of gourmet food is often expected. You'll impress your colleagues by inviting them to an excellent restaurant, and by holding informed conversations about food and wine. However, in the United States and United Kingdom, food is often less important, and many professionals eat lunch at their desks.
This list is certainly not comprehensive! Please let us know the customs in your own country and culture by commenting at the end of this article.
It's important to realize that every culture is unique. As you can see, there are likely many norms that differ from those in your own country, which is why it's so important to learn about, and respect, other cultures.
Understand and Manage Cultural Differences
The best way to avoid cross-cultural faux pas is to research the etiquette of the country or culture where you'll be working. Our Managing Around the World articles have detailed information that you can use to learn about specific countries.
You should also try to understand how other cultures process information and communicate. Use Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions to identify different values around the world, and explore the Seven Dimensions of Culture to learn about how other cultures process information.
Take time to build good cross-cultural communication skills, so that you can interact effectively with your team members or stakeholders. Good communication also encompasses skills like patience and tolerance.
You can also listen to our Book Insight into the classic "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands," by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conway, to learn more about different cultural values and expectations.
Cross-cultural awareness is an important skill, whether you're working abroad, leading a culturally diverse team, or entertaining a customer or client from a different country. Food plays an important role in many countries, so it's especially helpful to learn how to navigate cultural differences while dining.
Before traveling to a new country, learn about its values and expectations when it comes to food and dining. Your host or colleagues will notice your efforts, and this will help strengthen your reputation, build trust and create opportunities for you and your organization.
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