The lunch problem

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Cross-cultural lunches: a sure fire way to irritation and insult for all parties involved.

The rituals we have around meals and the meanings we attach to those, are one of those things that hardly anyone ever questions. But we should really, as it can cause a lot of misunderstanding.

A classic example is the Dutch lunch. I have seen it happen so many times: a company has international guests and treats them to lunch. The guests then receive a cheese sandwich, a glass of milk and if they’re lucky, a piece of fruit. Lunch is over in 30 minutes and everybody gets back to work quickly. Now in most countries lunch means a warm meal, it means sitting down for well over an hour and discussing many work related topics in a more informal manner, sometimes accompanied by a glass of wine. Just receiving a cheese sandwich is easily seen as a sign that they are not welcome in this Dutch company. So apart from thinking about the different types of food people eat for lunch, the really interesting part is to think about the meaning of it.

If you are from a country where a big meal is common for lunch, you might feel the Dutch are not very keen on welcoming you, judging by the little effort they seem to have gone through providing you lunch. You wonder what this says about their willingness to work with you, as they don’t even bother to spend a bit more time talking to you over lunch and getting to know you. The Dutch person on the other side of the table however is eager to work with you. In fact, they want to eat their cheese sandwich as quickly as possible, so they can get back to the office and work on important things with you. They don’t want to waste any time on something as silly as lunch. So in the same situation, at the same table, what seems almost an insult to one person is a given to the other that they are super keen.

The key is in the meaning people attach to these situations. For Dutch people, lunch is a short break in their work. The real work is done in the office, not in a restaurant. For most other cultures, the restaurant is where the real work happens. That’s where work relationships are developed and joint ventures start. The difference is not so much in the food served, but they way it is served and the meaning the act of having lunch has for the working relationship. So when you are working with people from other cultures, it’s well worth not just doing some research about food habits, but also about the function of the meal, to prevent any misunderstanding!




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