But there’s a deeper cultural reason why shared meals fit so well with eastern cultures. In many parts of Asia, most especially in Japan, the tradition is that you only do business with people once you have built a relationship, and thereby established a certain amount of trust and understanding.
It used to be the rule in Japan that a business relationship would begin with a bow, handshake and exchange of cards, to be followed by an exchange of beautifully wrapped gifts, then at least one shared meal, possibly even a game of golf, before anyone would consider it proper to raise the subject of business. Such elaborate preliminaries may no longer be the norm, but the tradition persists: get to know the person first; then get down to business.
At the opposite extreme, Anglo-Saxon culture has always tended to see business as a part of the hunter-gatherer’s duties, whereas the pleasures of eating and social life are reserved for the home. So if food needs to be incorporated in the business day, it must be strictly functional, designed only to give the participants sufficient stamina to continue working while providing minimal distraction.
This attitude strikes me as crazy. You can have a business meeting, including sandwiches if necessary, and you may well cover every item on your agenda, but no one will have let their defences down and revealed much of themselves. Who knows what business opportunities will have been missed?
It was the legendary French chef, Anthelme Brillat Savarin, who said in 1826: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Or, as people tend to abbreviate it nowadays: “You are what you eat.”
What would Savarin have made of the people responsible for those grim repasts wheeled into the meeting-room on a trolley, with cardboard chicken morsels, triangles of cold pizza, curling sandwiches and batons of raw carrot or cucumber providing the only vegetable content? He would see them, I think, as people living only half a life, with sadly limited horizons. And he would be absolutely right.
Wherever you are in the world, people reveal themselves with their attitude to food, not least whether they are the kind of people with whom you wish to do business.
Even hunter-gatherers ought to be able to see the value of this. Think of it, if you must, as an opportunity to size up your victim, allowing them to relax in order to reveal their weak points. After all, no one says you can’t be as ruthless as you like afterwards!
Mark Dixon is group CEO of global workspace provider Regus.
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