And I’m not talking about how one eats with chopsticks in China and uses the knife-fork twosome when in Europe. Being aware of cross cultural practices could prevent misinterpretations and in turn, your business reputation being tarnished. Understanding and appreciating foreign etiquette is crucial for today’s globetrotting business person to look smarter and avoid any repercussions. So let’s unleash the trivia!
In most countries, finishing the food served on your plate is important to let the host know you enjoyed the meal, but in China, an empty plate is considered rude and means that you weren’t fed enough. In fact, slurping is encouraged in many south-east Asian countries to show your appreciation of the food!
Generally in Asian countries, you are expected to take cues from your elders when at the table and wait till the eldest person has started, and then keep pace with them, as in Korea. In some countries you will also realise that it isn’t in their culture for men and women to dine together or at the same time.
• When in Thailand, it’s considered rude to put food directly in your mouth with a fork. Instead, the fork is used to push food onto the spoon, which is then put into your mouth.
• When in China, it is considered rude and almost offensive to point your chopsticks at someone.
• When in Japan, ensure your chopsticks are never sticking out upright out of the rice bowl and if you are indeed travelling there, you certainly want to brush up on those sushi-eating etiquettes along with the regular culture trivia.
India and the Middle-East
When in the Middle East, you are expected to leave a tiny portion of food in your plate to indicate you are done eating, because if your plate is found empty, it will promptly be filled up!
Another inherent practice in this part of the world is not eating with your left hand. Almost considered a taboo, the right hand is reserved only for food duties and noble pursuits, while the left is reserved for cleaning yourself (read: in the washroom). And while you are at it, when dining with an Indian family you may want to find out about their food preferences beforehand, since meats aren’t consumed by everyone, often for religious or moral reasons.
The African continent
• When in Tanzania, ensure you do not smell the food unless you want to come across as a rude person.
• When in Nigeria, and if you are a woman, do not ask for a spoon! Women do not use spoons in Nigeria when they eat. This is a done thing.
• If you are drinking coffee with the North-African Bedouins, shake your cup after you are done. They will keep pouring more coffee into it if you don’t.
• In Ethiopia, family meals are served off one giant plate instead of individual plates. Extra plates are considered wasteful. This classic custom is also followed in many middle-eastern countries.
The American expanse
• In U.S.A., while the modern American is known for skewing his meats and grilling them, they are also known for a place setting that takes up five acres of table space. It would include a bread plate, butter knife, water glass, champagne flute, napkin, salad fork, dinner fork, dessert fork, dinner plate, salad plate, soup bowl, dinner knife, teaspoon and a soup spoon just to name the basics!
• When in Mexico, it is considered ill-mannered to eat tacos with a fork and a knife. So be polite and eat with your hands!
• While in Chile, you may want to hold on to your fork and spoon. Eating with your fingers might cause you to be labelled rude.
Etiquettes à la European
• When in France, it is recommended not to cut your salad leaves with a knife. Fold the lettuce onto your fork instead. It is also considered auspicious to break the baguette (French bread) into pieces using your bare hands, rather than cutting it with a knife.
• In Portugal, never ask for salt and pepper to season your food. It suggests that you doubt the chef’s abilities.
• In Italy, an extremely local thing to do is to never order a cappuccino after a meal. Consuming any milk-based beverage after a meal hinders digestion. Which is why, an espresso is the favourite option. Another colloquial custom is that you also do not ask your server to top your seafood with cheese. Ever. It is considered a cardinal sin to mix fish and Parmesan.
• In the UK, you are expected to tilt your soup bowl away from you and take small sips throughout. Slurping is most certainly not an option, if you are in your right mind!
Amidst the long list of do’s and don’ts for social, family or corporate drinking, a few easy-to-incorporate customs include looking each other in the eyes when making a toast or saying “cheers”. This is followed in most European and Australian countries when clinking glasses and is considered incredibly rude not to.
In Russia, you never mix your vodka. You probably don’t ever want to turn down a drink from a Russian as well, since offering a drink is perceived as a sign of trust and friendship. They also down the entire glass at once. Sipping on your wine is considered to be a rude gesture.
The moral of the story? Always research customs before you travel. Even though the above few are just a handful, always try and ascertain cultural facts of a country that you plan to visit. By doing so, you are not only presenting your best abilities but maximizing the potential of your business trip. At the end of the day, becoming a global citizen has to make you look smarter. Not just cultured.