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Seal A Deal Over A Meal?

The eternal truth of Confucius “Friends and food are inseparable, and life is incomplete and improper without them” plays out in international business too.

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‘Breaking-bread’ and deal-making go hand in hand. International travel in the boondocks, its good time for globe trotters to reflect, of how good they have been in acing a deal over a meal. The soft skill to navigate cross-cultural business entertainment is woefully overlooked. No wonder, management schools are now offering ‘finishing’ courses, to groom MBAs on social etiquette and entertainment basics.

As an incurable foodie and having traveled 50 countries, it’s fascinating to experience the myriad cultures and cuisines.  I have had some colorful and delightful experiences as well as a fair share of the ‘comedy of errors. Here are some snippets, taboos, faux pas and insights from ground zero.

Seoul, early 90’s, - on my first ever visit to Korea, I was struggling to close a deal that seemed elusive. My difficult customer suddenly popped an invite to a SPA.  To my utter shock, I was greeted with the sight of men in birthday suits, in a steam-room! As per custom, we had to drop our towels, no choice… and as I did, my customer shook my hand gleefully and said ‘the deal is done’. I was perplexed. It dawned on me later. The dropping of towels was a symbolic act that meant- henceforth nothing is hidden between us, and we can trust each other! A revelation, no pun intended!!

Western cultures are more business-like, and relatively easier. The Brits have a limited food range, but can be sensitive to table manners or you end up offending them by asking for some soda for the exclusive malts – blue murder.

In the US, it’s very international and formal dinners too have a certain informality. Remember to tip well, if you are the host. The Spaniards love their food. They respect you if you can talk about gourmet foods and big-name restaurants. French, believe food is a complete art form and are passionate about their gastronomy.  Dishes are presented in style, with a ‘A Voila!’. You are then expected to appreciate what is served, and engage in some small talk, before you go chomp-chomp. Italy, is considered a food capital.  Dinners can start very late and stretch out well into the night. Germans, are meticulous – punctual and to the point. No drama.  However, make sure you eat that sandwich with a fork and knife, and learn downing and drowning in huge beer mugs! Swiss, you can’t get away from the 1500 varieties of sausages, and cheese overloads. If you hear ‘Yes, Mate – lets go to the pub’, you are in Australia and you are expected to ‘shout for a round’.

Latin America – business entertainment is relaxed and often long winded. A Friday luncheon, can stretch into dinner and beyond…Russia, it can be gregarious, noisy and a bit of dancing too thrown in. And beware - they are so fond of toasts, that Vodka will appear from nowhere and everywhere. Preserve your capacity.

In Asia, the cultures involve more traditions and rigid customs.  In Japan, it is seriously ritualistic and pretty long drawn. Learn to savor some cold or warm Sake i.e. Rice Wine. Your host may ask you out for a late-night Karaoke though.

In South Korea traditionally, large amounts of various dishes are placed in the centre, and diners draw their portions into small plates. Glasses are passed around pouring ‘Sikhye’, a popular  sweet rice drink.  It’s an honour to drink from the same glass as your host. So no safe distancing here.

Malaysia – I felt offended when my host kept asking me “are you properly stuffed, Mister Lao”!! It was a poor translation of  "chiah pa bue" which meant "have you eaten?" or have you had enough. He was being polite, I thought it otherwise. In Indonesia too you hear “Makan, iya?” and in Singapore ‘Makan Already?’ as form of greeting - Had your meal ?

Vietnam has its own regimens.  Dinners and karaokes intertwined into one. Noise is the measure of fulfilment.

Some friendly advice to my vegetarian friends. Ask for  Buddhist food to be safe or ‘chap-chye’ which is essentially greens and veggies. In Asia, plated options of sampler sizes, akin to Indian Thalis are often available.

The Middle East abounds in big time indulgence – large oval plates piled  up with mountains of exquisite food. Emphasis is on the display and size! Helpings are huge, and don’t mention ‘waste’. The lavishness is a display of their generosity and hospitality, towards you.

The Chinese go great lengths to plan 10 to 30 course meals. Presentation and service is always elaborate and but portion sizes traditionally small.  Seating is important.

Peek into Africa –don’t start eating or drinking till the eldest person on the table has started.  In Ethiopia, you neither use your cutlery or hands, sit back and enjoy someone feeds you a morsel wrapped in a piece of ‘Injera’ (dosa like)  into your mouth, following a respected custom called ‘Gursha’ !

To avoid landmines on your international entertainment.

* Punctuality – be on time, before the guests if you are the host, and if you are the guest, arrive after your host !
* Dress Code – don’t you assume, ask.
* Learn to greet, with cultural sensitivity . Brief or long, with the right gestures.
* Seating is  serious. Don’t plonk anywhere but wait to be shown a seat.  
* Start-signal is important .  Watch out for the cue
* Sequencing – drinks first and dinner late is Indian, most follow drinks after dinner.
* State your preference upfront - Vegetarian, Non Vegetarian, Pescatarian, or a ‘convene-tarian’ (one who will conveniently eat anything for a deal!).  
* Be sensitive about Halal, Kosher or no beef… based on the guests.
* Master table manners and mannerisms
* Last but not the least, please ‘Ask?” if  you don’t know - "He who asks is a fool for a moment, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever."  

The eternal truth of Confucius “Friends and food are inseparable, and life is incomplete and improper without them” plays out in international business too.

This article was first published in the print issue of (25 June- 09 July) BW Businessworld. Click Here to Subscribe to BW Businessworld magazine.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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K V Rao

The author is Resident Director - ASEAN, Tata Sons

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