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.
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 minimise 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.
BREAKING BREAD TOGETHER
So here’s my suggestion: if you want to do business with someone, invite them to a meal.
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 organisation, or with customers or contacts.
Have you ever been to one of those all-day business meetings, in which the morning is tight, tense and scripted, and then everyone adjourns for lunch, some unstructured conversations take place, and after that 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 whilst various dishes are placed on a revolving tray in front of you; or meze platters in Middle Eastern countries; or Indian meals in which you pass each item round, telling your neighbour anything you might happen to know – or even tasting it in advance, so you can warn them if they’re worried about it being too spicy. That’s the best kind of knowledge-sharing.
FOSTERING TRUST IN BUSINESS
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.
FOOD ISN’T JUST FUNCTIONAL
At the opposite extreme, British 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 into 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 defences 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, with batons of raw carrot or cucumber providing the only vegetable content?
Wherever you are in the world, people reveal themselves with their attitude to food, not least whether they are the kind of people you’d wish to do business with.
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!
How do you mix business and pleasure? Leave a comment
Photo: khrawlings on Flickr