Whether you are hosting a business dinner or raising a glass to toast a new deal, observing the correct etiquette when it comes to drinking and toasts is all part of cultural intelligence.
Raising a glass to toast a new business deal may seem like a simple celebration. Needless to say, it’s more complex than that. As in any cross-cultural situation, getting it ‘wrong’ may, in the worst case, give your new business partners cause to wonder whether you really understand them at all.
Here’s a quick guide to drinking etiquette around the world.
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After work in Japan
A session in the izakaya (a bar/restaurant) after work is where barriers come down and corporate masks are dropped, temporarily, even between people of different rank, all thanks to alcohol. In keeping with Japan’s collective culture, the first few drinks are common to everybody, so are usually something easily shared, like beer or sake. Don’t serve yourself; it’s polite to let someone else pour for you and then to return the favor. If you’ve consumed enough, don’t serve someone else as they will feel duty bound to fill your glass. Remember that the following morning in the office, formality will once again prevail.
Sharing soju in South Korea
South Korean etiquette is similar. When drinking soju, the distilled spirit that is enjoyed all over South Korea, the most senior people in the group are served first and you should never help yourself, although you can refill the glass of someone more senior, provided theirs is empty (don’t ‘top up’ here). If someone is serving you, hold the glass with both hands. Bear in mind that your glass will be refilled as soon as you drain it.
Mealtime etiquette in China
The Chinese enjoy multiple toasts over a meal. If you, as the honored guest, are toasted, you should toast your host in return. Touch the other person’s glass with yours as a sign of respect. For subsequent toasts when there are several people present, glasses are banged on the table. You may find your place set with three glasses. One is for the drink of your choice; one for wine; and one for shots. Do not fill your own glass but do fill those of people more senior than you, up to the brim.
Breaking down barriers in Russia
Vodka shots should be downed in one; it’s considered bad form to put down a glass that still contains alcohol. Similarly, once a toast has started, continue you hold your glass off the table until the toast is finished and you have drunk. Put empty bottles on the floor, not the table. Also, be warned that in more traditional businesses in Russia and some Central Asian countries it is considered hospitable to offer a shot of vodka to start a meeting and it’s polite to accept it. Drinking in Russia is seen as a bonding activity, even in business; it’s a way of building trust and breaking down barriers. Of course, consuming alcohol is not compulsory, but being teetotal may be a handicap to relationship-building.
Tradition in Hungary
Never clink glasses together when drinking beer. This is a throwback to 1849, at the end of the revolution against the Habsburgs, when 13 Hungarian martyrs were hanged as Austrian soldiers drank beer and clinked glasses. Hungarians vowed not to clink beer glasses for 150 years and some still observe the tradition.
Make eye contact in Germany and Denmark
When toasting, it is important to maintain eye contact as a sign of trust. Don’t look away or you could be construed as shifty or dishonest (a hangover, as it were, from medieval times when the clinking of glasses spilled a little from each one into the other, so people wouldn’t try to poison one another). Touch all the glasses you can reach with yours while toasting and fix your gaze on each individual as you do so.
Drinking with dignity in France
Filling a wine glass more than halfway is considered crass. Pour little and often and sip slowly; the French are polite and restrained drinkers. In a restaurant, the waiter should top up your glass; it’s considered rude to help yourself. Alcohol is not usually consumed without food and wine with a meal is to be savored. When in company, wait until everybody’s drink has been served and then propose a toast, assuming you are the host, making eye contact with your guests.
Show restraint in Sweden
Sweden has moved from a spirits-loving culture to a nation in which beer and wine are the most popular drinks. Swedes often don’t drink during the week but may consume more than usual at weekends. The country has an uneasy relationship with alcohol, the sale of which is controlled by the state; drink alone, for example, and you may be considered an alcoholic. Expecting wine at a business lunch is highly unusual, although a glass or two with dinner is acceptable. The host or hostess will welcome guests and propose a toast, and it’s only after this toast that you should drink your wine.
Buying a round in Australia
Drinking etiquette is less formal in Australia than elsewhere but in keeping with the egalitarian Australian spirit, when a colleague says in the pub, ‘It’s your shout’, it means you are expected to buy a round. At a more formal event in a restaurant, however, the host would normally pay for the drinks. If you are the host, choose an Australian wine, or one from New Zealand, and show appreciation. Australians are justifiably proud of their wines.
WRITTEN BY SUE BRYANT
Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.
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