Party planning across cultures: 16 do’s and don’ts  

Hosting a party is stressful enough in your own country, when you know all the people and the protocols. Planning an event overseas is double the trouble, especially if it’s a cocktail party, you don’t know all the guests, you have no idea who might turn up or what their expectations of a party might be. Here are a few pointers for party planning around the world:

  1. Pick a venue that’s accessible, easy to find and that will impress your guests. In the UAE and India, cocktail parties tend to take place in big hotels as they’re generally lavish affairs and you never quite know how many people are going to turn up. In London, New York or Sydney, a hip and impressive venue will be an incentive for people to come along.
  2. Time the party carefully. Avoid days before or after long weekends, clashes with major sporting events, religious holidays, and times of year when people tend to be away or busy, for example, August in France, or midsummer in Scandinavia, or Ramadan, or the week before Christmas.
  3. Don’t be too clever. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a serious business event to be handed a cocktail in a coconut shell with a cocktail umbrella. Or trying to network but being deafened by a band. Stick to what’s appropriate for the occasion.
  4. Observe local etiquette. For example, at an important function in India, you may greet guests with a garland of marigolds. Guests in Hawaii may be presented with a flower lei. Take local advice on either of these.
  5. Have a purpose. Are you launching a product, presenting awards, introducing a new head of the company? Make time for speeches, but keep them short. In countries like Germany, where business and social life are kept separate, people are most likely to turn up at a business function if there’s a good reason to be there.
  6. Check the acoustics; guests need to be able to hear the speeches, all the more so if you will be making a speech in what is not your first language.
  7. What about alcohol? Of course, it’s generally expected although in some Muslim countries parties will be ‘dry’. Some cultures will drink more than others at parties. In Japan, for example, drinking is part of the after-work culture, as it is in Ireland and Britain.
  8. Think about timing. In Latin American countries, people may arrive anything up to an hour late so don’t pack your party into a tight timeframe. Don’t get stressed if guests won’t leave; in cultures where entertainment is for relationship building, it is considered rude to leave suddenly just because the party has officially finished.
  9. Send invitations – but vary your expectations according to the culture. In Brazil and Latin America, people don’t generally respond to invitations, or they will respond and say yes whether or not they intend to turn up. In Arab countries, people will say ‘yes’ to save face but this doesn’t mean they are planning to come.
  10. State a dress code if you want – but assume people will dress up and dress to impress yourself. Apart from the fact that people will most likely be coming straight from the office, a lot of cultures will automatically dress smartly for a party, including Brazilians, Argentines, Spaniards, French, German, Italians and Japanese.
  11. Identify your guests of honor. If VIPs are coming, greet them personally, make sure they have someone to look after them and spend time with them.
  12. Budget for security, especially as some cultures rarely respond to invitations and you may have no idea who is coming. Have a guest list, of course, but do not be offended in cultures like India, the UAE or much of sub-Saharan Africa, where people may see nothing wrong with bringing along a friend or colleague.
  13. Cater sensibly. Nobody wants to waste networking time queuing at a buffet. Offer canapes instead and make sure there are vegetarian options, and that items are kept to bite-sized pieces. The exception is in India and UAE, where culturally, buffets seem to be more acceptable at large parties.
  14. Have a budget – but keep it flexible. People always drink more than you expect them to at parties.
  15. Think about name badges. Some cultures would be unlikely to wear them but in the USA, for example, people like to place others in context and name badges help with this. The same goes for Germany, where business cocktails tend to be purely work events, specifically for networking.
  16. Use a local party planner. They know the venues, the caterers and the habits of local people – and they will already have relationships with all the relevant suppliers. More to the point, they will take the pressure off you, the host, so you can actually spend time with your guests.

About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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