Nearshore Americas

Don’t Take Food Lightly: Understanding Ground Rules of Latin America Dining

Food culture has now reached every nook and cranny of our lives. Not only are we experiencing it as we sit down at the table to enjoy a home cooked meal, but media outlets such as magazines, newspapers, blogs, newsletters, and more are populated with food media; it might be a short editorial column in a local newspaper, to a full blown food blog (one of millions of them). Once you understand a country’s food culture, you have an insider’s view of how the people live, what they strive for and most importantly, how they conduct themselves on a daily basis.

For example, sitting down for a business lunch in Argentina isn’t the same as sitting down for a business lunch in Bolivia. Each country has its own demeanor, and this leads the encounter. While Argentineans tend to lead the conversation, trying to test your grasp of the business and try to control the situation, countries like Bolivia have an even more careful demeanor, letting you control the situation to some extent, viewed to them as a sign of respect extended to their guest. Below we’ll focus on some main points to consider while on business meals:

• Punctuality

o Latin Americans aren’t known for being the most punctual people in the world, but with that said, there is always an exception to this. Better be early to your meeting than have your Latin counterpart waiting for you. Tardiness of 10 to 15 minutes is acceptable for a lunch date, and a wait of 15 to 25 minutes for a dinner meeting is expected.

• Seating

o As you arrive at the table, let the ladies sit first (no need to pull out their chairs, the waiters will do that). Gentlemen do not need to stand up every time a woman stands from the table. Let your host sit at the head of the table and if there are place cards, please adhere to them.

Latin cultures are known for an incredible amount of small talk, so expect some of it, especially during the meal.

• Ordering

o Your host will most likely give you the go ahead on ordering before him/her, so you won’t be able to get a range of what you should and should not order. It is courteous to ask “What do you recommend?” or “What’s this restaurant most known for?” Stay away from the overly priced items, as this is considered pompous.

• Topics of Conversation

o Latin cultures are known for an incredible amount of small talk, so expect some of it, especially during the meal. Talking business while eating isn’t considered “correct,” so be sure to have a few topics to talk about that you feel comfortable with. Stay off topics such as religion or politics.

• Rejecting Food

o As in many cultures, rejecting food that has been offered to you by the host is seen as immature and un-mannerly. When presented with foods you rarely consume, such as new meats or produce, give them a try! Unless you are allergic to these foods, in which case you should not eat them, no matter how disruptive it is. Trying new foods is the best way to learn about a culture, where the people come from and an insider’s look at their lifestyles.

• Alcohol Consumption

o Wait for your host and see what drinks he/she orders. If they order a beer or hard alcoholic drink and you’d enjoy one, by all means go ahead and do so. Just stick with one or two drinks, no matter how well you can hold your alcohol. In Latin America, drinks are viewed as expensive (although beer not as much) and when ordering more than two drinks, you can be viewed as someone that continuously splurges on someone else’s expense account.

• Paying

o If you’ve been invited to lunch or dinner by a superior, assume that they will pay for the meal. If the person that has invited you is a fellow colleague of the same stature as you in the workplace, consider offering to pay half of the meal.

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In general, common sense is what will get your through meals in other countries. Take into consideration that your host is going out of his or her way to provide you with a good time, so be respectful and thankful. Definite don’ts include:

Slurping your food, serving yourself seconds if the host hasn’t, express visual disgust for unknown foods, eating with your hands, and observing that food in your home country “is different, better tasting, etc…”

While visiting new countries, try restaurants you’ve never tried before and ask the locals for recommendations. A great resource to use is Twitter, where you’ll instantly get answers to your 140 character questions. Use hashtags (words with the “#” before it, for example: What #restaurants do you recommend in #Argentina?) to get better searches on your tweets while abroad. And if all fails and you don’t know what to do, look to your side and see what the locals are doing, you won’t go wrong there!


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