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Mixing business and pleasure – over a good meal

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Yet some people still believe the two should be kept separate. 

Just a couple of years ago, Harvard Business Review carried an article by Jodi Glickman warning of the perils of mixing business and pleasure when using social media. She complained about receiving breezy “Hey, how are you?” messages that were really business pitches. Fair enough – that sort of bogus intimacy annoys me too. But she went on to argue that business and pleasure should be kept separate in the same way as church and state. And here I couldn’t disagree more.

I believe many of the best things happen when business and pleasure are mixed – over a good meal, for instance. Must business be conducted solely in offices, meeting-rooms or environments designed to minimise the possibility of joy or pleasure? Why such self-denial?

One of the things that matters most to me is that people should be themselves. No one should feel obliged to adopt a particular persona, or put on a business face. So here’s my suggestion: if you want to do business with someone, invite them to a meal. Since most of us not only need to eat at certain times of day, but also enjoy doing so, this gives us a chance to be ourselves, share an everyday experience, and maybe fit in some business at the same time.

When you sit down to eat with someone, it is understood that you are looking after yourself, satisfying your own appetite, while simultaneously showing consideration for your companions, passing the salt or filling their glasses. It’s a moment when, to some extent at least, barriers are lifted and hierarchies disappear – whether within an organisation or with customers or business contacts.

Have you ever been to one of those all-day business meetings in which the morning is tight and tense and scripted, then everyone adjourns for lunch, some unstructured conversations take place, and after lunch everything loosens up? That’s because business depends on human relationships, and the average business meeting barely gives those relationships a chance to get started.

There are some interesting cultural variations here – and it seems to me that on the whole, eastern cultures have most of the advantages. In the first place, Asian or Middle Eastern food is much more obviously suited to sharing. Think of those magnificent Chinese banquets where you sit at round tables and the various dishes are placed on a revolving tray in front of you; or mezze platters in Arab countries; or Indian meals in which you pass each item round, telling your neighbour anything you might happen to know – or even tasting it in advance so you can warn them if they are worried about it being too spicy. That’s the best kind of knowledge-sharing. 

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