Getting into the spirit
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. Heres a quick guide to drinking etiquette around the world.
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 favour. If you’ve had 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.
South Korean etiquette is similar. When drinking soju, 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.
The Chinese enjoy multiple toasts over a meal. If you, as the honoured 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.
Vodka shots should be downed in one; it’s considered bad form to put down a glass that still contains alcohol. Put empty bottles on the floor, not the table. Also, be warned that 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.
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.
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.
Filling a wine glass more than halfway is considered crass. Pour little and often and sip slowly; the French are polite and restrained drinkers. Alcohol is not usually consumed without food. When toasting others, clink glasses with everybody at the table but don’t cross your arm over anybody else’s.
The host or hostess will say ‘welcome’ and it’s only after this toast that you should drink your wine. The host, or the most senior person present, will make the toast and after glasses have been raised, men traditionally will wait until women have put their glasses down before replacing theirs. If you are a woman, failing to put your glass down and getting straight into a long conversation while clutching it can be embarrassing for men around the table, who will be left holding their own glasses aloft.
Australia and beyond
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. The same applies in Britain and Ireland, where everybody takes turn to buy a round of drinks, and in Turkey, where instead of buying a glass for yourself at the bar, you should buy a bottle for the table. Cheers!