I was once chastised during a business lunch in West Africa because I ordered a gin and tonic with my meal. After I committed that cultural faux pas, I was told that hard liquor is for “only dinners and night clubs.”
By contrast, a friend of mine who lived and worked in Japan for a year recently told me that a common cultural preference is for colleagues not only to drink together, but get drunk together. Although my friend had not previously been much of a drinker, he eventually became accustomed to consuming alcohol more regularly in social settings.
Comparing these two situations is just one way of showing how drinking norms—professional or personal—can vary widely between cultures and/or individuals.
When it comes to alcohol consumption, cultural preferences can be important to consider for a variety of reasons, including making social connections, building trust in professional relationships, or even maintaining personal safety. What’s more, women and minorities in particular tend to face the added challenge of being stigmatized or excluded in social drinking settings more often than other groups.
This also means that alcohol consumption can be a charged topic because it often overlaps with deeply ingrained cultural behaviors or religious rituals and traditions. So whether or not you choose to imbibe, always be true to your own beliefs and needs, but do your best to keep an open mind wherever you go. It is a lot easier to manage cultural differences in drinking norms when you increase your cross-cultural awareness and find ways to foster greater intercultural communication.
Here are some tips and guidelines to help you navigate diverse expectations surrounding alcohol consumption.
1. Know what to expect. It’s pretty hard to adapt to cultural preferences if you don’t know what they are. Get in touch with associates or other points of contact and ask them about standard drinking practices. Online resources like CultureWizard’s Country Profiles are also a hugely helpful source of insight.
Some things to consider as you conduct your research:
- Is drinking alcohol culturally acceptable? Is it common?
- Do colleagues often socialize together after hours? Drink together?
- Are women typically invited to join after-hours dining or drinking?
- What are some favorite local drinks (alcoholic or non)?
Once you have a sense of local norms, it’s a good idea to prepare some answers in advance so that you can appropriately respond to invitations or encouragements to drink.
2. Talk about it…Or don’t! Sometimes, being open is the best way to take the edge off an awkward situation. If you feel comfortable and it seems appropriate in your context, consider sharing your cultural preferences or religious practices around alcohol consumption, and ask your associates about what is customary for them. Deepening each other’s sense of cross-cultural awareness will probably help you smooth the path toward reaching a point of mutual understanding.
Of course, open dialogue is not always an option, especially if you are communicating across language barriers. In a country like Japan, where communication tends to be more indirect, it may be best to express your alcohol preferences in a subtler way. For example, you can accept a drink when it is poured for you, but leave the glass full so that others know you’ve reached your limit. You can also order a common local drink that is non-alcoholic to indicate that you won’t be partaking. It’s a good idea to learn some non-verbal signals that are customary in your destination’s region and culture.
3. Find a compromise. Like any other cross-cultural issue, there is no right or wrong answer, and when you’re building relationships across cultures, it’s often a good idea to meet in the middle. In the case of adapting to local drinking culture, there’s a few ways to modify your behavior while still being yourself. In Greece, for example, you could taste the very strong local favorite, ouzo, even if you don’t drink a whole serving. If you’re more introverted, you can push yourself to go out for dinner and drinks more often than you would at home. If you enjoy a drink in moderation, then it might be best to order one and just sip it slowly so that it lasts the evening.
Of course, it’s always important to stay safe and mind your limits. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone in the face of cultural differences can be fun and rewarding, but we always recommend a cautious approach, at least until you get your bearings.
4. Find other ways to connect. The above tips are intended to help you bridge cross-cultural divides through compromise and communication. But of course, everyone is different, and it’s entirely possible that your feelings about alcohol in business culture just won’t align with those of your associates in your host country.
Not to worry! Shared experiences involving alcohol are often integral to culture and entertainment because they help create common ground upon which people can build trust. When expats or business travelers arrive in their host country, it’s essential to find ways of connecting with locals and forming strong relationships. But it doesn’t have to involve alcohol.
There are many ways to build trust and make connections that have nothing to do with alcohol consumption. Think: food, art, sports, history, fashion, etc. Even if your views on alcohol or your styles of communication differ, asking questions shows a genuine interest in—and respect for—another person’s culture. Curiosity will often spark conversation and help people feel more at ease with one another. For women in particular, it can be very valuable to connect with colleagues on multiple topics so that you are more visible in the group.
Whatever your tendencies around alcohol may be, the key to navigating cross-cultural differences is often to just be yourself. Behaving authentically while being mindful and observant of others’ tendencies and values will hone your cross-cultural awareness and enable you to feel more comfortable in diverse situations.