Name the things on the dining table
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For a business traveler, sharing a meal with an international client is a necessary part of establishing a relationship. And just as each culture has its own cuisine it has its own dining etiquette. If you are new to a country, no one will expect you to perfectly master local table manners.
Everyone has made a mistake or two at the dining table. Most mistakes in dining etiquette are rather minor.
Most North Americans use their right hand to use both their knife and fork, necessitating the frequent switching of utensils. Most Europeans keep their dinner knife in their right hand and the fork in their left. This is a very practical way to eat.
While I was at a formal dinner in Paris, I unconsciouslyplaced my left hand in my lap–the polite thing to do in the United States–but wrong in France. The French keep both hands gracefully balanced on the table’s edge, and of course, they hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right.
While it can be difficult to remember all the appropriate behaviors when you travel around the world, it can be just as complicated to host visitors from other countries.
Nancy Gilboy, the Executive Director of the International Visitor’s Council in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, constantly hosts delegations from all over the world. Besides observing various food taboos (never serve pork to Muslims, beef to Hindus, etc.), she has noted that certain cultures are careful to ensure that everyone receives an equal share of the meal. When shrimp was being passed around at a dinner with a group from China, she took three or four and offered it to the next diner. Subsequently, she noticed that each attendee took just one shrimp in turn and offered it to the next person. Of course, in their culture, the good of the group is more important than any one person’s appetite, and the Chinese often take a single portion of food at a time.
In many parts of the world, people only do business with those they know and trust–and that kind of contact is generally established over lunch or dinner. When international executives visit clients in countries like Brazil or Chile, they often try to get their appointments around 11 a.m., so they can all go to lunch together afterward. They spend time in a convivial environment, where no business is discussed.
Refusing to eat the local cuisine is one of the quickest ways to offend your hosts. Never complainabout how spicy the local food is, or how fattening, or that you would never eat insects/lizards/canines/primates (or whatever you find offensive). Just eat what you can without making yourself sick, and keep your criticisms to yourself. When necessary, resort to a medical excuse: "I'm sorry, but my doctor has forbidden me to eat shellfish."
The Queen of England, who is polite enough to try almost anything, was the center of attention after a visit to Belize. During her visit, the Queen ate a local delicacy, a dibnut—an animal that looks like a large chipmunk. When the English press discovered what the Queen had been served, the headlines ran “Queen Eats Rat!” Fortunately, citizens of Belize have a sense of humor and immediately changed the dish from “dibnut” on their menus to “Royal Rat.”
One of the benefits of travel is the chance for new experiences. You probably aren't going to be offered the chance to eat scorpions or bird's nest soup at home. If you are offered them in China, try them. You might actually like them.
Ultimately, dining abroad is an adventure. We all have to eat, and sharing meals with global prospects and clients helps to cementrelationships.
Excerpted from OAG Frequent Flyer, September 7, 2001
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