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The globalization of business means that lawyers in firms of all sizes may have dealings with clients in many countries and cultures. Here are some basic tips that cross many cultures.

  • Don't refuse food.  Accepting food and drink is accepting your host. When offered food, it's impolite to hesitate before accepting. You do not have to eat much, but it is rude not to sample each dish.
  • Wait until food is offered, particularly if you're unfamiliar with that country's cuisine. (An American once accidentally helped himself to the centerpiece.)
  • Don't judge table manners.  They vary widely from country to country.  For example, making a slurping noise while eating soup is rude to Americans, but is accepted behavior to Japanese. From Shizuo Tsuji's book Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art: "To really enjoy noodles, one must imbibe them fast with a cooling intake of breath. To do this involves a decided sucking sound, which easily deteriorates into a slurp. But no one minds in Japan, since the whole point of noodles is to eat them fast while they are very hot. I know how hard it is for those trained to eat noiselessly, but eating noodles too quietly can be mistaken in Japan for a lack of enjoyment of this food."
  • Stay sober.  Drinking too much during business dining or socializing is never a good idea-no matter where you are.  Be aware of local liquor customs.  In many Middle Eastern countries drinking alcohol is prohibited by religious law, but in many European countries you may be encouraged to drink up.  If you do drink, be smart about it. When drinking with a Japanese person, fill his glass or cup after he has filled yours. While he is pouring, hold your cup or glass up so he can fill it easily. Never pour your own drink and always pour your companion's.
  • Don't expect to eat on an American schedule.  As a visitor, so you must adapt to new mealtimes.  In Latin America the dinner hour is usually much later than the 7 p.m. standard in the US.
  • Don't bring your spouse.  In some cultures, you should not bring your spouse to business meals unless specifically invited to do so.
  • Use utensils correctly.  Know the difference between the American and Continental use of the knife and fork.  In some cultures, be prepared to eat with chopsticks or with your fingers.
  • Don't bring the wrong gift.  If you're dining at someone's house, you may want to bring the hostess a gift, but be careful.  Check out local customs before you bring flowers, which can have specific meanings in other countries.  For example, in Germany red roses are for lovers only. Here are some other examples of cultural sensitivity to flowers.
  • In other countries, observe local custom about when to begin drinking your wine at a meal.  The Danish, for one example, observe the custom that you don't begin drinking until the host has offered a toast to all at the table. 

Obviously, these are just a few of the countless international dining considerations, intended to cause you to investigate the customs of your destination country or the origin of any visitors you host.

Perhaps some of our well-traveled readers can share additional tips in the Comment section.

Mike O'Horo

It's a rare lawyer who doesn't attend business networking events. Most, though, confess that they'd rather do anything but. They experience acute anxiety and sometimes physical distress at the prospect of mixing with a bunch of strangers, making small talk, trying to find a way to encourage a business relationship. Learn how to go from standing paralyzed in the doorway to "hello" to having a meeting scheduled with a qualified prospect.