By Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison
© Copyright 2004, All Rights Reserved
Humans are social creatures, and one vital way we express our communality is by dining with others. 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. However, it is expected that a foreign executive not disrupt a meal with gross violations of etiquette.
If you want to create a good impression when dining abroad, here are some tips:
Utensils (or Lack Thereof)
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, and not terribly difficult for North Americans to adopt. However, there is the risk of gesturing with a knife (which is considered threatening in many countries, and poor manners in most places). Practicing eating with the fork in the left hand before your trip is a wise exercise.
In Asia, chopsticks can present a problem, but becoming adept at their use will be appreciated. However, you may also be offered Western-style implements, and you might opt for them if you just don't have the talent for manipulating the sticks. (We've seen US diners who are all thumbs with chopsticks scatter food all over the table and worse, over other diners). If you decide on chopsticks, remember these two rules: do not stick your chopsticks vertically in a food bowl (this makes them look like joss sticks, the incense sticks burned at funerals), and use the clean, back ends of the chopsticks for taking food from a communal tray or bowl (unless, of course, there are serving utensils for the bowl).
Dining in parts of the Middle East and North Africa is traditionally done without utensils. The most important guideline is to remember that, in and around the Arab world, the left hand is considered unclean. Even if you are left handed, eat only with your right hand. Follow your host's lead for the exceptions; the most common is to use your left hand to drink from a glass when eating greasy food with your right.
Don't Be Judgmental
Refusing to eat the local cuisine is one of the quickest ways to offend your hosts. Never complain about 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."
This includes not deriding local preferences, both in food and brand names. In the Philippines, the US chain Dunkin' Donuts is extremely popular, and its products are served with pride in many homes. Similarly, the Japanese have a tradition of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas. Somehow, the non-Christian Japanese came to associate the white-bearded Colonel Sanders with Santa Claus. This tradition is so widespread that KFC meals must be ordered weeks in advance for pickup on December 24 and 25!
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.
In some situations, people will offer you local delicacies as a challenge. They know that foreigners find their delicacies unpalatable, but a foreigner good-natured enough to try such a food is widely appreciated. Arab chefs know that most North Americans find eyeballs disgusting, but that doesn't stop them from offering foreigners sheep eyes at a banquet. And there are few greater gustatory tests than eating the balut, which is sometimes called the national snack of the Philippines. The balut is a soft-boiled egg, usually duck but sometimes chicken. If that sounds innocuous, consider this: the balut is a fertilized egg, with a half-grown duck embryo inside! This bird embryo is eaten whole beak, bones, feet and all. Foreign women may be spared this delicacy, but men are expected to try it, since the balut is believed to increase male potency. Duck embryos are also popular elsewhere in Asia, notably in Vietnam.
Sometimes food or drink is shared to convey communality. In Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, people drink a caffeinated tea made from the herb called yerba mate. Also known as Paraguayan tea, the leaves are packed into a gourd, which is then filled with hot water. After the herbs have steeped, the mate tea is sipped through a metal (usually silver) straw. What is unusual about this ritual is that only one gourd and one straw are used by the entire group. After the first person drains the gourd, it is refilled with hot water and handed to the next person. You may consider it unsanitary to drink from the same unwashed silver straw, but to refuse it would be to declare yourself apart from the group.
Ultimately, dining abroad is an adventure. We all have to eat, and sharing meals with global prospects and clients helps to cement relationships. Besides the development of a large network of friends and associates, trying unfamiliar foods is an opportunity to break up the routine of our lives. Learn some new aspects of dining etiquette it is one of the best ways to make your international travels palatable.
Excerpted from OAG Frequent Flyer, September 7, 2001