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Combining business and pleasure over a good meal

Published: Updated:
Dixon
Dixon

Can you, or should you, mix business with pleasure? If, like me, you find business to be one of the most reliable sources of pleasure, then the question seems absurd.

Yet some people still believe the two should be kept separate. Just a couple of years ago, the Harvard Business Review carried an article by Jodi Glickman warning of the perils of mixing business and pleasure when using social media. She complained about receiving breezy “Hey, how are you?” messages that were really business pitches. Fair enough – that sort of bogus intimacy annoys me too. But she went on to argue that business and pleasure should be kept separate in the same way as church and state. And here I couldn’t disagree more.

I believe many of the best things happen when business and pleasure are mixed – over a good meal, for instance. Must business be conducted solely in offices, meeting-rooms or environments designed to minimize the possibility of joy or pleasure? Why such self-denial?

One of the things that matters most to me is that people should be themselves. No one should feel obliged to adopt a particular persona, or put on a business face. So here’s my suggestion: if you want to do business with someone, invite them to a meal. Since most of us not only need to eat at certain times of day, but also enjoy doing so, this gives us a chance to be ourselves, share an everyday experience, and maybe fit in some business at the same time.

When you sit down to eat with someone, it is understood that you are looking after yourself, satisfying your own appetite, while simultaneously showing consideration for your companions, passing the salt or filling their glasses. It’s a moment when, to some extent at least, barriers are lifted and hierarchies disappear – whether within an organization or with customers or business contacts.

Have you ever been to one of those all-day business meetings in which the morning is tight and tense and scripted, then everyone adjourns for lunch, some unstructured conversations take place, and after lunch everything loosens up? That’s because business depends on human relationships, and the average business meeting barely gives those relationships a chance to get started.

There are some interesting cultural variations here – and it seems to me that on the whole, eastern cultures have most of the advantages. In the first place, Asian or Middle Eastern food is much more obviously suited to sharing. Think of those magnificent Chinese banquets where you sit at round tables and the various dishes are placed on a revolving tray in front of you; or mezze platters in Arab countries; or Indian meals in which you pass each item round, telling your neighbor anything you might happen to know – or even tasting it in advance so you can warn them if they are worried about it being too spicy. That’s the best kind of knowledge-sharing.

But there’s a deeper cultural reason why shared meals fit so well with eastern cultures. In many parts of Asia, most especially in Japan, the tradition is that you only do business with people once you have built a relationship, and thereby established a certain amount of trust and understanding. It used to be the rule in Japan that a business relationship would begin with a bow, handshake and exchange of cards, to be followed by an exchange of beautifully wrapped gifts, then at least one shared meal, possibly even a game of golf, before anyone would consider it proper to raise the subject of business. Such elaborate preliminaries may no longer be the norm, but the tradition persists: get to know the person first; then get down to business.

At the opposite extreme, Anglo-Saxon culture has always tended to see business as a part of the hunter-gatherer’s duties, whereas the pleasures of eating and social life are reserved for the home. So if food needs to be incorporated in the business day, it must be strictly functional, designed only to give the participants sufficient stamina to continue working while providing minimal distraction.

This attitude strikes me as crazy. You can have a business meeting, including sandwiches if necessary, and you may well cover every item on your agenda, but no one will have let their defenses down and revealed much of themselves. Who knows what business opportunities will have been missed?

It was the legendary French chef, Anthelme Brillat Savarin, who said in 1826: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Or, as people tend to abbreviate it nowadays: “You are what you eat.”

What would Savarin have made of the people responsible for those grim repasts wheeled into the meeting-room on a trolley, with cardboard chicken morsels, triangles of cold pizza, curling sandwiches and batons of raw carrot or cucumber providing the only vegetable content? He would see them, I think, as people living only half a life, with sadly limited horizons. And he would be absolutely right.

Wherever you are in the world, people reveal themselves with their attitude to food, not least whether they are the kind of people with whom you wish to do business.

Even hunter-gatherers ought to be able to see the value of this. Think of it, if you must, as an opportunity to size up your victim, allowing them to relax in order to reveal their weak points. After all, no one says you can’t be as ruthless as you like afterwards!

- Mark Dixon is the CEO of Regus plc which provides serviced office accommodation in business centers.

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