Minding Your Manners When Dining Abroad
Lack of preparation seems to be a shortcoming for many U.S. executives who conduct business overseas. Few people take the time to do their homework so they can learn to interact comfortably with people of other cultures. Executives from other countries, on the other hand, often spend substantial time and money researching U.S. businesses and social customs.
To stay competitive, cultural competence and a global mindset are a must. You must be willing and able to adapt to the client’s culture and ways of doing business. Of particular interest are the nuances of dining out in a foreign country, since we all must take meals, often together. Here are some of the cultural differences you might encounter.
Don’t pass judgment.
What may be considered bad form in the U.S. may be a common practice in another country, like slurping soup in Japan and Hong Kong. It is a sign of approval and appreciation and should be interpreted as a compliment.
Let the host determine the seating.
In China, the most honored position is the middle of the table, with the guest of honor in the middle on the other side and the others flanking the host in order of importance. When it doubt, let the host indicate where you are to sit.
In many cultures mealtime is an experience and not to be hurried. Business meals can last several hours and the wait staff will not rush your table as they do in the U.S. or bring the check until you ask for it.
Don’t necessarily clean your plate.
In the U.S., leaving a little bit of food indicates that the food was delicious and you are finished. Conversely, cleaning your plate in Cambodia means you want more and the host has not provided enough to eat.
Speak more softly.
A common complaint about Americans is that we speak and laugh too loudly. Lower your voice to a comfortable speaking volume.
Cut your food.
In many countries, like Germany, Italy, Chile and Brazil, utensils are used to cut and eat your food -- even when eating pizza or what we consider “finger foods.”
Practice the continental style.
Europeans use the Continental style of managing silverware--the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right without switching hands. If you pause to speak, cross your fork and knife across your plate to indicate that you are not finished, or the wait staff may remove your plate. In Japan, never stick your chopsticks upright in your rice. This is a funeral gesture used to honor the deceased. Instead, place your chopsticks in front of you parallel to the edge of the table.
Watch your hands.
In the Middle East, India and parts of Africa your left hand is used for hygiene purposes and should never be used to eat. In India, do not even touch the plate with your left hand. In Thailand, many dishes that contain glutinous (sticky) rice are eaten with the hands, as are dishes served in Ethiopia from a common serving plate. Many cultures are more comfortable when your hands are in sight, like Russia and France.
Tipping is not always necessary.
Tipping is not expected in many countries (check the Condé Nast 50-country tipping guide). In Japan it can be considered an insult. In Greece, Guatemala, Italy and Hong Kong a service charge is included in the bill at restaurants and bars. An additional tip is not obligatory, but is common to round off the amount, especially when paying in cash.
As you can see, there are many variations on dining cultures and they can vary even between neighboring countries. To avoid unintended faux pas, research the customs of your intended destination before you travel.
Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla. She is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).