In a Harvard Business Review  article entitled “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 negotiations by more than $6.5 million.

Why? Biologically, there are multiple possibilities for the rise in revenues. Increased glucose levels may enhance the participants’ brain activity. Also, the unconscious mirroring of each other’s dining motions may have induced positive feelings of camaraderie and trust among participants.

But sharing a meal is more than an anatomical exercise. For one thing, conversations around the table 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 to the one hour (or more) school lunch break that French students enjoy every day. Even preschoolers in France are served freshly prepared five course meals. And vending machines, the ubiquitous junk food standby for picky eaters in US schools, are nonexistent in France, Japan and other countries.

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 to learn about the culture and abide by local mannerisms. As she drove the rural roads that surrounded her company’s facility, local Guamanians (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, (like never taking the last bit of food off a serving plate), she built a reputation for integrating into far flung environments. Her next assignment? Equatorial Guinea.

A culture’s dining traditions can carry great weight. And though the local cuisine may not appeal to your taste, orchestrating such a business meal can represent a substantial effort by your hosts. This why it is critical for business travelers express great appreciation for their hosts’ efforts and try all the foods that are offered.

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

Do You Really Eat That?!
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 2) Scotland 3) Indonesia 4) England 5) India, Korea and China 6) US
A) Kidney Pie B) Silkworm pupae C) 246 varieties of cheese (give or take)  D) Haggis E) Durian F) Testicles

Answers: 1) C) Charles de Gaulle once 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); and 6) F (Going to Oklahoma’s Calf Fry Festival this year?)

Terri Morrison is a speaker and co-author of nine books, including Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries, and her newest book, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: Courtrooms to Corporate Counsels. She is president of Getting Through Customs, developers of Kiss Bow or Shake Hands Digital - available through McGraw-Hill. TerriMorrison@kissboworshakehands Twitter @KissBowAuthor. Tel (610) 725-1040. Visit www.kissboworshakehands.com , and join the Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands Group on LinkedIn!