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Dinner is served

One thing that I found difficult to get used to when travelling in Spain is the eating patterns. The Spanish tend to eat a large three-course lunch at around 2pm, which can last for up to two hours, and then they eat again after 9pm. In the UK and Germany (the two cultures I’m most familiar with), I’m used to eating a smaller lunch much earlier in the day and a larger meal in the evening at around 7pm.

On a couple of occasions soon after arriving in Spain I wanted to eat in a restaurant in the evening. I arrived at my destination at around 6pm, checked in to a hotel, showered and went out to look for a restaurant. I found that many restaurants did not open their doors in the evening until 8pm, so I wandered around waiting until one opened, and then when I entered and sat down, I was the only customer for a good hour until the locals arrived from 9.30pm onwards. Inevitably, I was just finishing my meal as most of the customers were arriving.

When dealing with foreign cultures there are a number of different ways to react (these are probably best represented on a continuum but would include the following three main behaviours):

1. Stick to your own way of doing things

2. Adapt partway to the new culture

3. Fully embrace the new culture

When it comes to Spanish eating culture, I was unable to stick to my own way, since the restaurants simply were not open at 7pm when I wanted to eat. So, at first, I adapted by eating at 8.30pm (although I was the only person in the restaurant and I had the slightly uncomfortable feeling that I was causing the waiting staff extra work by my being there so early.)

But within a few days of travelling around Spain, I was able to fully embrace the eating culture of the country. On a number of occasions I was eating after 10pm, along with many other Spanish restaurant customers, and it made me feel like I was part of the crowd... like I belonged. This is the reason why we adapt to or embrace new cultures.

This simple example can be extrapolated to doing business with other cultures. Think about how much you value your own way of working. Do you try as much as possible to stick to your own way of doing things? Are you willing to adapt in some way to your business partners’ ways of doing things? Or can you see yourself fully embracing new cultures and doing things another way instead? For example:

• How important are deadlines to you? Must they be adhered to at all costs, are they flexible or do they not matter at all?

• How important is “getting down to business” in comparison with spending time working on relationships with your foreign business partners? Are you rigid about the time spent on socialising or are you willing to spend some time, or a lot of time, on what you might consider unnecessary small talk?

• How important is it to begin meetings (face-to-face or online) punctually? If a meeting is scheduled to begin at 10.00am, should the participants have arrived and be seated before 10.00am, or is it acceptable for people to arrive a few minutes later or even half an hour later? How is this communicated to the participants?

One of the challenges of developing competence in intercultural situations relates to your ability to adapt and embrace new cultures without losing sight of your own cultural identity. It’s a difficult balancing act indeed.