Negotiating Before, During or After Meals in Cross Cultural Settings

What You'll Learn
  • It can be culturally appropriate or very inappropriate to discuss business over meals
  • Adjust to signals from your counterpart if you have inadvertently chosen the wrong time to negotiate

The Minefield of Negotiating Around Meals

At what point should you initiate business topics at a meal?

  • In task-oriented countries, especially the U.S., it is not unusual to bring up business just after ordering and while waiting for the first course to be served.
  • Nearly all of the relationship-oriented cultures, and many western European cultures (which may be otherwise classified as "task-oriented"), find this practice very surprising and actually distasteful.
  • In some extremely relationship-oriented cultures, such as most of the Middle East and Asia, business may not be discussed at all until after more than one meal.
  • In many Latin American countries, the topic of business may be raised at the end of the meal over coffee or brandy, and then only in a very general way.

It is impossible to know in advance in each different culture exactly when the "right moment" is, since it may depend on the region, the industry, the past relationship, and of course, the immediate circumstances. For that reason, the best practice is as follows:

  • For task-oriented groups: wait for a strong cue from your counterpart that the time is now appropriate. If you attempt to introduce a business topic and it is deflected in any way (such as by offering you another drink or suddenly commenting on the relaxing or elegant atmosphere of the restaurant), do not pursue it! They will signal to you when they are ready.
     
  • For relationship-oriented groups: learn to recognize an early attempt to discuss business by your counterpart as normal. If you are not yet ready to discuss business, simply indicate to them that you would like to enjoy your time together a little longer and discuss it at another time. They will feel relieved if you can give them an idea of when. Later on in this meal? At another meeting on this trip? On another trip?