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Cross Cultural Dining Etiquette:
A Brief Overview

When negotiating tricky business deals in various countries around the world, your thorough understanding of local dining customs could make all the difference

by Neil Payne
Kwintessential Ltd

In today's inter-reliant, international and culturally diverse world economy, cross cultural differences can have an impact on business success. Both at an individual and organisational level understanding the values, etiquette and protocol of different cultures can positively influence your dealings in the worldwide marketplace.

A lack of cross cultural awareness can result in misinterpretations which may cause offense. Such outcomes may end in your reputation being tarnished and your business objectives impacted. Cross cultural understanding and appreciation of foreign etiquette is important for today's globe trotting business person to avoid such negative repercussions.

One area of importance in cross cultural awareness is the different dining etiquettes of the world. Understanding dining etiquette can help international business people polish their conduct and behaviour while dining or entertaining.

Cross cultural dining etiquette involves considering the following points:

  • Seating - is there a protocol as to who sits where? Should one wait to be seated? Is it acceptable etiquette for men/women to sit next to one another?

  • Eating - what utensils, if any, are used? Is it a knife and fork, hands or chopsticks? Is there any etiquette around using them?

  • Body language - how should one sit? Is it bad etiquette to rest elbows on the table? If seated on the floor what is the correct position?

  • Conversation - is the meal the proper place to engage in conversation? If so, is discussing business appropriate?

  • The food - what foods are common to eat? Is it good etiquette to compliment the cook and how? Does one finish everything on the plate? Is it polite to ask for more.

  • Home/restaurant - what differences in etiquette or protocol would there be? Does one take a gift to the home? Who pays the bill at a restaurant?

By way of outlining some of the cross cultural differences in dining etiquette across the world, the following countries shall be used as examples:

Dining etiquette in Germany

  • It is good etiquette to remain standing until shown where to sit.
  • Table manners are continental - fork in left hand and knife in right.
  • Do not begin eating until the host signals to do so.
  • It is bad etiquette to rest elbows on the table.
  • Try and cut food with the fork as it compliments the cook by showing it is tender.
  • Everything should be eaten on the plate.
  • Indicate you have finished by lying the fork and knife parallel across the right hand side of the plate.

Dining etiquette in Japan

  • An honoured guest sits at the centre of the table furthest from the door and begins eating first.
  • Learn to use chopsticks - never point them, never pierce food with them, rest them on the chopstick rest when breaking for drink or chat.
  • It is good etiquette to try a bit of everything.
  • Conversation is subdued.

Dining etiquette in Turkey

  • Meals are a social affair. Conversations are animate and loud.
  • The head of the family or honoured guest is served first.
  • It is good etiquette to insist the most senior is served first instead of you.
  • Asking for more food is a compliment.
  • If taken to a restaurant, Turkish dining etiquette has strict rules that the one who extended the invitation must pay.

Dining etiquette in the USA

  • The fork is held in the right hand and is used for eating.
  • To use the knife, the fork is switched to the left hand. To continue eating, the fork is switched back to the right hand.
  • If you are more comfortable eating in the Continental manner it will not offend anyone.
  • Foods or drinks can be refused without causing offense.
  • Many foods are eaten by hand.

Dining etiquette in the Middle East

  • Guests are honoured with prime choice of meats - head, eyes, etc.
  • Eaten with right hand only.
  • Meat is torn by holding down the piece against the dish and ripping off a desired amount with forefinger and thumb pressed together
  • Rice is scooped up.
  • Do not be afraid of making a mess.
  • If you are finished leave food on your plate otherwise it will be filled immediately.
  • It is proper etiquette to compliment the host on the food and his hospitality.

The above are a very small number of examples of cross cultural differences in dining etiquette. It is prudent to try and ascertain some facts about the dining etiquette of any country you plan to visit on business.

By doing so, you present yourself to the best of your ability and maximise the potential of your business trip.

Neil Payne has travelled, worked and studied extensively in the Middle East. and holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies Drawing on his experience as a language teacher, translator and cultural consultant, he founded Kwintessential Ltd., a London-based Intercultural Communications consultancy offering cultural awareness training, language tuition, translation and interpretation. Visit the company website for more information.

Some Related Articles:

Communicating Across Cultures (2)
Cultural Sensitivity in Business
Communicating Across Cultures
Business Lunch Etiquette
Etiquette for Meeting People in Business
Business Card Etiquette
Cross Cultural Negotiation

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