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Dinner and a Deal

  By Terri Morrison
© Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved

In the Harvard Business Review article “Should You Eat While You Negotiate?” Lakshmi Balachandra described an experiment she conducted with MBAs to ascertain whether negotiating a deal over a meal would increase the value of the theoretical agreement (vs. discussing it without food). Her tests showed that, yes, eating together – even in a conference room – improved the overall negotiated deals by more than U.S. $6.5 million! 

Why? Biologically, there are multiple possibilities for the rise in revenues. Increased glucose levels may have enhanced the participants’ brain activity. Also, the unconscious mimicry that occurred when diners mirrored each other’s motions may have induced feelings of camaraderie and trust. 

But sharing a meal is more than an anatomical exercise. While the food and drink may elevate our blood sugar (and libidos), conversations with our fellow diners are what give us the sense of amity and alliances. And that bond is a prerequisite for selling into cultures that are built on personal networks. Unfortunately, in the US, even eating fast food can be considered an annoying necessity; an interruption in a busy schedule. 

This perception starts in US grade schools, where food is gobbled down in a 20 to 30 minute frenzy – basically as a prelude to recess. Compare that process to the one hour (or more) lunch break that French students enjoy every day at school. Even preschoolers in France are served 5 course meals which are freshly prepared, usually starting with an appetizer, followed by a salad, entrée, cheese plate and a dessert, which is often fruit. And vending machines, the ubiquitous junk food standby for picky eaters in US schools, are nonexistent in France, Japan, and other countries. (However, vending machines full of beer can be found right outside high schools in Japan.) 

So if eating habits are established in grade school – how do US executives change their behaviors, and adapt to other cultures’ dining etiquette?

An Environmental Regulatory Compliance Auditor named Jamie White figured it out when she asked for an extended assignment to Guam. Jaime wanted the extra weeks so she could slow down, learn about the culture and abide by local mannerisms. This attitude served her well as she drove the rural, rutted roads that surrounded her company’s facility.   Local Chamorro (who are also US citizens) would often walk up to her car, lean on the window and invite her and her associates in for lunch. 

Accepting these invitations gave her great credibility in the eyes of the locals, many of whom worked for her employer. And since Jamie invested the effort to learn the dining etiquette in this US territory, (like never taking the last bit of food off a serving plate), she made many friends and built a reputation for comfortably integrating into far flung environments. Her next assignment? Equatorial Guinea.

Logically, we all know that there are dining taboos around the world (no beef in India, no pork in Saudi Arabia, no using your left hand in either locale, etc.). But rather than citing offenses, here is a tongue-in-cheek list of delicacies. Try to match the countries and their cuisines.

1. France                                          A)  Kidney pie

2. Scotland                                       B) Silkworm pupae

3. Indonesia                                     C) 246 varieties of cheese (give or take)

4. England                                       D) Haggis

5. India, Korea and China                  E) Durian

6. USA                                             F) Testicles

Answers:

1.  C) Charles de Gaulle thought this excessive, and remarked “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”;  2.  D) stuffed sheep stomach;      3.   E) an odorous fruit;      4.  A (a staple!) ;      5.  B (usually boiled, sometimes fried as well) ;      6.  F (Going to Oklahoma’s Calf Fry Festival this year?) 

A culture’s delicacies can carry great weight for many reasons. Perhaps scorpions were eaten by your predecessors and now may symbolize the hardscrabble lives of your revered ancestors. Or some delicacies may be exciting because they are dangerous (like blowfish), or purportedly make you virile (oysters anyone?), or because some are just plain decadent (like gold-plated chocolate).  

Whatever the reason, orchestrating a successful business meal with local delicacies can represent a substantial effort by your hosts. They want you to enjoy a pleasant experience and taste what’s unique about their culture and cuisine. This is why it is critical that business travelers express great appreciation for their hosts’ efforts and try all the foods that are offered. 

And as Lakshmi Balachandra’s research in the Harvard Business Journal corroborated for us global travelers – taking the time to eat together pays you back!

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