Continuing with our holiday-hospitality theme, some of your professional holiday invitations may include events hosted by people from other cultures. To help you fit in seamlessly, and avoid unintentionally creating an awkward moment, here are some examples of customs that differ from ours.
- Don't refuse food. Accepting food and drink is accepting your host. There isn't any acceptable way to refuse food, unless you are allergic to it. Always try a little.
- Wait until food is offered. What appears as food may be intended as decoration. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Altering your meal in foodie cultures like France, Italy, Spain and Japan, e.g., asking for ketchup, hot sauce, soy sauce or salt to alter your meal, may raise some eyebrows. Before you ask for a condiment, see if there are any on the tables - if not, you should probably refrain.
- Don't polish off your meal. To Americans, finishing a meal shows the host how much they enjoyed the meal. In other countries, like China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia, it signifies that you're still hungry and that they failed to provide you with enough food.
- 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.
- In a foreign country, observe the 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. Then, all may proceed to drink.
- Time to go. When visiting someone's home, the serving of coffee at the end of an evening is a signal that it is time for visitors to prepare to leave.
Let's not forget that making or furthering business connections is, if not the purpose, it's at least a purpose of these social events. To balance business and social properly, a good rule of thumb is to limit any (self-interested) business topic to no more than a couple of minutes. This is just long enough to recognize mutual relevance and interest, but not so long as to monopolize or cause non-interested bystanders to feel excluded. Graciously mention that you don't want to monopolize the conversation, and suggest that you continue your discussion outside the event, perhaps at lunch or by phone.
How do you make enough progress in just a few minutes to ascertain whether or not you want to move forward and, if so, motivate the other person to want to also? This is where your Door-Opener is so valuable.
Ask the other person what they do for a living; this is a common conversation-starter in the US. If they belong to a group that's likely to experience your Door-Opener problem, test it on them. "It seems like [people in your specific business] [struggle with/face/encounter] [problem]. Am I looking at this usefully?" If they acknowledge the presence of the problem, mention that you've been developing some ideas in that space and suggest picking up the conversation later, as above. If the person's line of work makes your Door-Opener irrelevant, you can use what I call the Pollyanna Gambit, i.e., suggest that it seems like things are fantastic in that business now. No business is that fantastic; there will always be problems and challenges. The other person will correct your misperception and share some of the challenges they face.
Keep it short and either schedule a longer conversation, or move on.
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