Food: A Universal Language

A plate of Italian pasta.

A dish of Japanese sushi.

A bowl of Ukrainian borscht.

Traditional dishes from around the world bring together many elements of the culture on a plate.

They’re like a sensory representation of the larger culture.

And even better – cuisine is a great conversation starter, because it’s rare that food is taboo.

No Food Taboo

Unlike other cultural areas – like dress, honor, sexuality – there isn’t much taboo surrounding food.

Every culture loves their traditional dishes, and every culture wants to talk them up.

Bring up religion at the dinner table, and you’ll be walking a minefield.

Bring up sexuality in some cultures, and you’ll likely be shown the door – or at the minimum, be on the receiving end of some death stares.

Bring up food, and nearly everyone will be overjoyed and will love to share their favorite dishes, their cultural heritage.

Food is not a hot button issue (unless you’re arguing which pizza is better: Chicago deep dish or a New York slice).

And you can talk about food all day, because not only does it vary across cultures, it varies across regions of the same culture.

For instance, a pizza in Northern Italy will be prepared with thin crust; the more south you go, the thicker the crust gets.

How it’s prepared, the regions’ special touches, what special treats are made for celebrations and holidays.

People of every culture are exuberant about sharing their food; this is one area of conversation you can be relatively sure about.

Food Culture: France vs. Denmark

Discussing one’s food culture can also reveal some pretty interesting discrepancies between countries and their approach to food.

As we talked about last week, the how, when, why, and with whom of food can give you some hints about the broader culture itself.

Danish Professor of International Marketing Dominique Bouchet knew this and so compared the differences between French and Danish food culture.

As one might expect, significant differences exist.

The French view eating as a social experience.

The importance placed on food is reflected by their language, which has a broad vocabulary for food, eating, and even specific tastes.

The Danes view food more as a source of nutrition and energy. Pleasure and the social experience takes a backseat.

While you might see a French person touching and smelling fresh ingredients at a market for a good deal of time before they purchase their products, you’re unlikely to see a Dane do the same.

What we eat and why we eat is a major indicator of who we are.

Bouchet writes:

“Fresh oysters and red meat are seldom appreciated in Denmark, whereas in France exactly red meat is perceived as being more alive, and thereby more powerful and appetizing. The animalistic aspect is seen as something positive in France and Spain, whereas the associations in Denmark and Germany are more in the direction of death and morbidity. The reaction is one of disgust, and therefore it is desirable to kill each and every trace of what is disgusting in a process of frying, boiling, or pasteurizing.” 

With food, our cultural differences are bolded and italicized.

This is why sharing food is so important to cultural integration.

If you are inquisitive and observant about your new culture’s food habits, you can deduce much more about a culture than just their food preferences.

You can discover the deep roots of their baobab.

Food Culture: What HOW You Eat Can Tell You About Culture

Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?

Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?

What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?

With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?

The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole. 

On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).

The Presentation: Food Plating

Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.

One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.

Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.

The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.

The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.

Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.

The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.

The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.

The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.

How, When, Why, With Whom?

Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values

Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.

Ask:

  • How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat? 

Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.

  • When do you eat?

The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.

  • Why do you eat?

Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.

  • With whom do you eat?

While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.

Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.

Learning a Culture: From Scholastic Learning to Experiential Learning

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how important learning the language, religion, and history of your host culture is.

This conscious, and often scholastic, learning process requires time, energy, and discipline in ways that may make you feel like you’re back at school.

It can oftentimes be a tough process, requiring many studious hours logged. After all, you’re investing in educating yourself about an entire culture.

But don’t worry, not all cultural learning will require you to dust off the books. Some of it – and some might say the most important part of it – is experiential.

Learning Through Sharing

You are not going to learn the power and emotion of Spanish flamenco watching it on YouTube.

You are not going to learn the colloquial idioms of Portuguese by memorizing by rote.

You are not going to learn how to make Italian pasta by hand without getting your hands dirty (or flour-y).

Learning culture is an experiential process and, without learning by sharing, you’ll be missing out on all the warmth of learning culture.

Cultures are not two-dimensional. They are living and breathing; they must be experienced in-the-round.

Immersion for Integration

“Instead of having 100 rubles, it’s better to have 100 friends.”

That’s what a Russian proverb says.

And foreign friends will be so much more valuable to you than rubles, as they will be able to show you their cultural behaviors, tell you their history, and teach you their traditions better than any book can.

Making friends is an investment in your cultural integration, as it allows immersion learning.

This type of learning involves sharing time and food and language with local friends.

Whether you’re an expatriate living in your host country or an international manager traveling abroad often, local friends will make learning fun rather than book work.

Not only will local friends make you culturally savvy, but they’re likely to expose you to local entertainment and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been privy to on your own.

And, even better, you’ll build life-long relationships in the process.

Learn History to Learn Culture: Hungarian Toasting Customs

“Here’s to joint success in our current venture!” you say cheerfully to your Hungarian colleagues, as you hold up your beer pint for a clink at a Budapest bar.

Instead of getting a “here, here!” or the expected return, you are on the receiving end of blank stares.

You’re oblivious to the fact that you’ve just made yourself the monkey.

If you’d done a little research into the history of the culture and its traditions prior to being relocated to Budapest, you may have avoided this “monkey moment.” 

You may have learned how to toast in proper Hungarian fashion.

Learn History to Learn Culture

As we’ve discussed over the past couple months, learning language and religion inherently teaches you about culture.

The last of the trio – history – tells an important story about the beginnings, the evolution, and the present reality of any great nation.

Activist and journalist, Marcu Garvey, once said: 

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” 

The roots of cultural baobabs – aka, the invisible parts of culture – impact the behaviors and norms that we do see aboveground.

History is a major part of these roots. 

It defines us – our customs, mentalities, and traditions; it shapes our identity.

Nearly every modern country teaches its history in schools. It’s often a watered-down version, but it’s a historical framework nonetheless. 

Data indicates how institutions, subcultures, and entire nations are created and how they evolve. Such data allows us to infer how cultural norms and values are formed.

Hungarian Tradition

Back in Budapest, you’ve read up on your Hungarian history.

You learn that, according to legend, during the rule of the Habsburg Empire, Austrian executioners shared in a clink of their pints whenever a Hungarian general was killed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

When the revolution was defeated, it is said that this is how the Austrians celebrated in Vienna.

This has led to the Hungarian no-clinking tradition during toasts with beer, which strays from most other European countries’ cultural toasting customs.

While you might have just accepted the norm at face value and abstained from clinking in the future, taking the extra step of educating yourself about your monkey moment did you a favor.

Understanding helps clear up cultural ambiguity and uncertainty and gives you a solid footing in a foreign culture.

This is just one bit of proof that learning a little history goes a long way to learning a culture. We’ll offer more next week.

3 Vital Reasons to Learn a Language

“Hola!”

“Bonjour!”

“Ni hao!”

“Zdravstvuyte!”

While there are many reasons to learn another language, the below BIG THREE are vital.

1) Understanding Each Other

Communication – a vehicle to understanding – is of course one of the main reasons to learn a language.

English is the official business language of many international companies. Most managers, even of foreign companies, speak fluent English.

In this regard, successful management may not be entirely dependent on learning another language if you look at it purely from a communication perspective.

However, if you’re meant to feel at home in a foreign culture, better understanding will only be had once you know the native language.

2) Learning the Culture

As we talked about in last week’s post, language and culture are intertwined. 

Learning the language will teach you how the culture‘s people think – including your colleagues. 

One personal example of this: 

My father wrote the dictionaries for the tribe of the Mossi, whose language spellings weren’t standardized in the ’70s.

In writing these dictionaries, he learned not only about the language, but about the values of the culture, due to the importance of certain words and phrases.

Greetings, for instance, were many and varied.

When meeting a group of people in a field, you’d extend a different greeting than that of a group congregating under a tree.

Not only does the location impact the greeting, the response is also standardized.

Asking after one’s health is important, as are formalized responses to these greetings.

Even the Mossi are aware about how difficult these greeting customs are to master.

They have a saying, “Saan puusem yaa a ziibo,” which means, “The greetings are a heavy burden for foreigners.”

My father became fluent in the Mossi language and began to understand conversations and idioms.

“When the crocodile is sick, then the buffalo can drink,” for instance, is an optimistic statement meaning there is always an upside in life.

When you learn the language, you learn the culture.

It’s as simple and complex as that.

3) Demonstrating Respect

As my father did with the Mossi, learning another culture’s language demonstrates your respect for the people.

When a Walmart CEO announced that English would be the official company language in Germany, his actions weren’t taken well.

In fact, this – at least in part – led to the conglomerate withdrawing from the German market and to a billion plus-dollar loss.

Instead, handle language as the British CEO of Korean automaker, Daewoo, did. 

When it became apparent that General Motors, the U.S. company that bought out the failing motor company, Daewoo, was viewed as an outsider in Korea, Daewoo’s British CEO, Nick Reilly, took this to heart.

What did Reilly, known for his policy of “putting people as No. 1,” do?

Unsurprisingly, he put people first by way of appearing on a Korean television commercial.

When the people saw Reilly himself speaking the language to show his – and, more importantly, the brand’s – respect and commitment to Korea, they were colored impressed.

The result: the commercial resonated with Koreans, and the Daewoo company – although reorganized and rebranded in many places – saw a dramatic recovery.

Learning Another Culture: A Conscious Process

Do not minimize the importance of cultural integration when expatriating abroad – or sending employees abroad. 

The value of learning how to adapt to another culture not only eases the transition for you and/or your employees, it also impacts your bottom line.

Last week, we talked about the difficulties of cross-cultural integration particularly for Westerners.

Overcoming our own cultural conditioning and ethnocentricity in order to accept another culture’s ways is challenging for those from the West. 

That’s why it’s incredibly important for senior managers and employees who are expatriates abroad to learn how to learn another culture.

This actionable step should be incorporated into an employee cultural integration plan. 

In fact, cultural integration should be a top objective when expatriating employees.

If you’re sending employees who don’t have any understanding of the culture or the finesse of diplomacy, then your business venture is likely to fall flat.

A Conscious Process

Think of the conscious process of cultural integration as similar to learning a new language.

First and foremost, you need to study.

Whether it’s through books or a teacher, you should be seeking knowledge about your foreign host country.

This is Cultural Integration 101. 

And like language training, there’s only so far you can get with books; fluency also requires immersive practice with native speakers

Only then can you strengthen your vocabulary, master pronunciation, learn colloquial phrases, and really delve into the nuances of the language.

The same goes with fluency in a culture.

Books and notes make up the theoretical learning process. This can be done at home.

The immersive process is done through active sharing.

Whether you’re sharing a meal with your foreign colleagues, joining in a sport with your friends, or getting involved with your local community, sharing in the foreign culture hands-on is the way to the heart of its nuances.

Learn to Admire

As we talked about last week, the Colonial Superiority Complex may still be an inherent default for those from Western cultures.

But true integration is only achieved when expats view their host culture as equal to their own, despite any differences in economic, scientific, social, or military advancements, etc., between the two countries.

You can be proud of your own culture, while simultaneously showing curiosity and admiration in another’s.

The bottom line is, you must be able to adopt an objective perspective regarding values and norms in order to manage successfully in another culture.

Next week, we’ll talk more about learning about and admiring the achievements of other cultures.