The Etiquette of Business Dining Around the World

Fingers or forks?  “How am I supposed to eat THAT?”  Every culture has a host of dining etiquette rules that you need to know.

“First, never cross your chopsticks in an “X” on your plate.”

Sitting next to me at my first banquet in Shanghai many years ago, my Chinese host was giving me a lesson on chopstick etiquette.

 “Never separate your chopsticks on either side of the plate. But, most important, never stand your chopsticks up in your rice bowl.”

“Bad luck?” I guessed.

“Yes,” he confirmed smiling, “It means DEATH!”

Not knowing the rules at the global table could be THAT serious.  While I learned a good deal about chopstick etiquette at that meal years ago, the most important lesson was to allow my host to teach me the do’s and don’t’s I needed to know.  To this day, it’s probably the best advice I can give for insuring success when dining in other cultures.  Admitting a little ignorance allows for the beginning of what often is the start of a beautiful relationship, and there’s nothing more important to your success abroad than that. 

Understanding local values is key to succeeding on a business trip.

Imagine how many customs there are to know when traveling around the globe: where to sit, how much to eat, what to do if you don’t like the food, the list goes on. If you don’t know, are unsure, or are just curious, observe and mirror what others at the table doing, and humbly –with a sense of adventure and fun – ask. 

For example, if you find yourself in a restaurant in:

Bangkok: Don’t ask for chopsticks.  Thai food is eaten with a spoon and fork.

Sao Paulo:  Flip the red flag up when you have had enough meat; flip the green flag up for more, and save room for the meat at the end of the meal. They save the best cuts for last!

Riyadh: Traditional Gulf Arab food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand only. Keep your left hand in your lap: never eat or pass food with it.

I Don’t Think I Can Eat That!

At the end of a banquet in Hong Kong, I was offered the head of the fish.  I knew this was an honor as fish cheek are prized as the tastiest part of the fish.  I could not refuse the honor, but I was having trouble with the idea of eating the fish head.  What to do? I turned to my Chinese associate next to me and said, “I understand that being offered the fish head is a great honor here in Hong Kong, but it is an unknown custom in my country.  Please let me share this with someone who can appreciate it in their stomach, as well as in their heart.” and I passed the dish to my Chinese colleague. 

Never dismiss the effort at hospitality, always do something to acknowledge it.  You don’t want to eat that strange item your plate?  Let them put it on your plate anyway, move it around a bit, and eat something else.  Not sure what THAT is?  Go ahead and ask, if you want.  Maybe you’re better off not asking, though, as your response shouldn’t change: never refuse, ever.

Resist Doing Anything Until You Watch What the Locals Do.

Dont just sit yourself down at the table in Japan.  Wait to be shown the seat they want you take (it will tell you something about how highly they respect you: the honored seat is often in the MIDDLE of the table, notthe head).  Don’t ask for sugar for your green tea in Korea, if there is no sugar on the table you are expected to drink it unsweetened.  If you eat everything on your plate in Cairo, it is a sign that you are still hungry, and your host will continue to put food on your plate until you finally leave some. Yes, you are expected to sip from the same straw in Buenos Aires when the mate (a kind of herbal tea) is passed around the table at the end of the meal.  And yes, it really is OK to eat asparagus in Paris with your fingers. 

Think About What You Might Need to Know…Ahead of Time.

If your dinner invitation to your colleague’s home in Mexico City says to arrive at 8pm, don’t show up before 8:45pm (they will still probably be getting dressed if you do!).  Don’t bring your spouse or partner to the business dinner in Delhi, and don’t ask to beforehand.  If you don’t drink alcohol, tell your German colleague you’re taking a break from drinks for a few weeks (they likely do that, as well), and don’t expect alcohol in Saudi Arabia, as it is flat-out illegal. 

Do your homework, learn the rules, mirror what others are doing, and with genuine interest and in the true spirit of adventure that learning about other cultures is all about, humbly and genuinely ask about the things you don’t know. It’ll be the beginning of a great friendship, and you’ll be on your way to being a savvy global tablemate, anywhere in the world.

Dean Foster, author of five books on world cultures, travel and work (, is also host of the podcast, “Oops! Your Culture’s Showing!” ( and the CNN “Doing Business in…” series.  He is on faculty at the Intercultural Management Institute, American University, Washington, DC. His work has taken him to over 100 countries and he still loves getting on the plane.