The rules of etiquette can be difficult enough to follow in your own culture.
After crossing borders, the rules of etiquette can change so drastically from what you’re accustomed to, they become a minefield of blunders and faux-pas just waiting to happen.
If you are in another country on business, following the local rules of etiquette becomes very important, as it can be crucial to the success of your business ventures.
While some etiquette blunders are laughable or not likely to cause serious offense, others might make your business counterparts perceive you as rude or unappreciative, and may inhibit your business relationship from moving forward. Knowing proper table manners can be an asset in international business.
What follows are some guidelines for numerous situations you may encounter.
Receiving an invitation to dine out should be considered and honor and should not be refused. Dining out with your hosts can help build your relationship and establish trust, which will help you with your business endeavors in the long run. If you must refuse, offer a legitimate reason.
In most countries, an invitation to dinner likely means you will be dining with your host in a restaurant. A personal invitation to dine at someone’s home should be considered a tremendous honor and a sign of deep trust. However, some cultures highly value hospitality and are eager to extend invitations to dine in the home. Therefore, an invitation to dine at an Indian or Colombian home may not carry the same significance as an invitation to dine at a Japanese or British home. Nevertheless, these invitations should be treated with the same amount of respect and decorum, and should not be refused; otherwise, you might offend the host or miss out on a fascinating experience.
Time and Punctuality
Dinner, drinking and other social occasions can last many hours. Set aside an entire evening for a social event and pace yourself. To avoid causing offense, try not to leave before others do. In China, the serving of fruit signifies the end of the meal. Guests are usually expected to leave within 30 minutes after the fruit course is served.
While punctuality is important to many people, it can offend others. When in North America, Scandinavia, Germany and China, it is important to arrive on time for business functions and social occasions. Arriving late could offend your hosts. In other countries, you will be expected to arrive late for social functions. Arriving early or on time could embarrass your host, as they may not yet be prepared for your arrival. In India, for example, you should arrive 15-30 minutes late for dinner at someone’s home.
Seating arrangements are often well thought out according to many factors, such as age, gender, status or hierarchy. A good rule of thumb in any country is to wait to be seated. In many countries, the guest of honor will usually have a specific place to sit, often next to the host, at the head of the table or farthest from the entrance.
As a guest, you should respect the selections of your host and sample everything. A host may ask you for recommendations. If you are familiar with the country’s food, don’t hesitate to say something like, “I’ve read about haggis and I would love to try it.”
As a host, you should take into consideration the dietary restrictions of your guests. In India, for example, Muslim Indians do not eat pork, Hindus do not eat beef and many Indians are vegetarians. When hosting a meal in India, provide chicken, fish or lamb for meat eaters and a variety of vegetarian dishes.
Toasting is a common practice in most countries. You should wait for your host to initiate the toast before drinking or beginning your meal. Make an effort to lightly clink your glass with all other guests. In many cultures, it’s appropriate to make eye-contact when touching glasses and to seal the toast by sipping your drink. After the host proposes a toast, you can also make one, but be sure you do not upstage the first.
Here is a list of common toasting phrases in different countries:
Czech Republic: “Na zdraví”
Denmark, Norway, Sweden: “Skål” or “Skoal”
Spain and Mexico: “Salud”
USA, UK, Australia: “Cheers”
More phrases can be found here.
Beginning Your Meal
As in the United States, it is considered proper etiquette in many other countries to wait until everyone is served before starting to eat. In some countries, the eldest or most senior person at the table or the guest of honor will begin their meal first. And in many countries, your cue to begin eating might be a phrase like “Bon Appétit” or in Japan “itadakimasu”, which literally translates into “I humbly receive.” When in doubt, observe your fellow diners.
Chopstick etiquette is very important in Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam, and you would be wise to learn how to use chopsticks properly before visiting any of these countries on business. The effort will be appreciated by your hosts. For those who are completely inept at using chopsticks, silverware will probably be available for you in many restaurants. Chopstick etiquette differs across cultures, but here are some general guidelines:
- Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up out of your rice bowl, as this resembles a funerary rite in many of these cultures.
- Never point your chopsticks at someone or use them to gesture.
- Use a chopstick rest, when available.
- Don’t chew or suck on your chopsticks.
- Don’t pierce or spear food with your chopsticks.
- Dropping your chopsticks or placing them parallel across your bowl symbolizes bad luck, so try not to do it.
- When taking food from a communal plate or passing food, use the opposite ends of your chopsticks (the ends you don’t touch with your mouth).
In the Arab world and in India, the left hand is considered to be ‘unclean’, as this hand is used with water in place of toilet paper. It is taboo to eat or pass food with your left hand. In these countries, refrain from using your left hand when shaking hands, dining, passing objects or gesturing. This will be a challenge for left-handed people, but you will have to train yourself.
The U.S. American style of dining with cutlery is often a source of amusement for many Europeans and South Americans. U.S. Americans tend to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand as they cut their food, then switch hands to put the food in their mouth with the fork (tines up), and switch back again to cut the next piece of food. This method of eating may seem quite silly to people outside of the United States, and may even offend those with high expectations of proper table manners.
Outside of the United States, most people adhere to the “Continental” or “European” style of dining with cutlery, where the fork is held in the left hand and the knife is held in the right hand throughout the meal, without ever switching.
I recently had dinner with a well-traveled American businessman, who told me about the time he was offered live baby mice at a banquet in China. In nearly every country, it is considered polite to sample every kind of food you are offered. To refuse food without having tried it can offend your host. However, no one will expect you to eat something that will make you sick or violate your beliefs. If you are offered something you simply cannot or will not eat, offer a believable health or religious reason.
Cleaning Your Plate
In some countries, etiquette dictates that you should eat everything on your plate. Otherwise, you might be seen as wasteful or unappreciative of the food. However, in other countries, cleaning your plate would indicate to your host that he did not provide enough to eat.
Here are some general guidelines that should help you handle this delicate situation:
- In Asian countries like Japan, China and Taiwan, leave a small portion of food on your plate to signify to your host that your appetite was satisfied.
- In most European and North American countries, eat everything you take.
- When in doubt, observe what your fellow diners do, or leave a small portion of food on your plate.
Alcohol plays different roles in different cultures. In some countries, drunkenness indicates a lack of self-control and will be frowned upon. In others, social drinking can last far into the night and your counterparts may get “three sheets to the wind”. You should understand the local drinking habits and laws in order to prevent yourself from getting sick, making a faux-pas, or even committing a crime.
Your host country might be more avid alcohol drinkers than what you are accustomed to, the alcohol might be stronger, or the climate might make the effects of alcohol more extreme. Pay close attention to your alcohol intake and the effects it has on your body. When you’ve had enough to drink, turn over your empty glass or keep it full so it won’t be refilled. In countries where rejections of alcohol might cause your host to lose face or take offense, state health or religious reasons for abstaining.
In Islam, intoxication by alcohol is forbidden. In most Islamic countries, Muslims may face severe penalties for importing, purchasing or consuming alcohol. As a tourist or business traveler, you may consume alcohol in some hotels, but refrain from offering alcoholic beverages to your Muslim business counterparts or drinking in front of them.
Topics of Conversation
In some countries, meals are considered to be social occasions, and as such, your host may not bring up the subject of business. Wait for your host to begin discussing business first. Even if business is not discussed at dinner, you are still building a relationship and establishing trust with your host, which can help your business goals in the long run.
Not all topics of conversation are appropriate in all countries. For example, you should refrain from discussing women in Saudi Arabia, talking about Aborigines in Australia, or criticizing the government in China.
When in doubt, safe topics to discuss include:
- Culture, the Arts and Literature
- History – positive aspects
- Your home country or city
Unless your colleagues bring it up first, avoid these topics:
- History—negative aspects, including wars
- Racism and Ethnic/Class differences
- Criticism of the host country
- Personal issues, such as income, marital status, age, sexual orientation, etc.
Other Etiquette Tips
Some general or miscellaneous etiquette guidelines to follow:
- cover your mouth with your hand when using a toothpick
- refrain from blowing your nose at the table
- avoid adding excess salt, pepper or ketchup to your food
- don’t belch or slurp when eating, except in Asian countries where these are signs that you are enjoying your meal
- wash your hands thoroughly before eating
- participate in the singing if you are invited to karaoke in Japan, Korea or China
- offer cigarettes to everyone else in your group when smoking
- keep hands on the table, not in your lap, when dining in Europe
- men should refrain from dining alone with a businesswoman in South America; consider inviting spouses
In almost every country, the person who extended the invitation is expected to pay the bill, though guests and hosts will often enter into a good-natured argument about who will pay. Women should expect their male counterparts to insist on paying.
When saying “thank you” is not enough, you can reciprocate by inviting your host to a meal of the same value. In fact, this may be expected in places like China and Taiwan. Before the meal begins, make sure you give your credit card to the restaurant staff or instruct them to only accept payment from you.
Tipping customs vary across countries, so you should do research on it or ask a native of the country you’re visiting how much you should tip at restaurants.
Here’s To Your Health!
In any culture, adhering to proper table manners and etiquette shows your host that you have respect for them. This can only help improve your relationship and establish trust.
The guidelines put forward in this post are generalizations that should give you a vague understanding of dining etiquette across cultures, but you should do your own country-specific research before traveling abroad for business.
The following resources should help:
1) Executive Planet
2) Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in 60 Countries
3) Wikipedia -Table Manners