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Bottoms up? Drinking etiquette when working abroad

  • Indulge while you work?

    Can drinking on the job be a good thing?

    Porto, a Portuguese city renowned for its port wines, says yes.

    In early August, an appeals court for the nation’s second-largest city ruled that, essentially, drinking on the job could make an unpleasant job a little more bearable, according to news reports.

    The case involved an employee at a waste-removal company who had been sacked for being drunk on the job. The court said, in short, it didn’t matter whether some workers had a bit to drink before starting an unpleasant job.

    Of course, few companies around the world advocate for on-the-job drinking, but a variety of cultures have wide ranging perceptions and approaches to mixing work and alcohol. In some cultures regular — even heavy — drinking is embraced and encouraged in work-related scenarios, while it is practically forbidden in others.

    For global professionals, it pays to know what to — and not to do — wherever you are working. (Getty)

  • Anywhere you go…

    When travelling abroad for business, etiquette experts advise visitors to follow the oft-heard motto “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Pay attention to and conform to local drinking customs and follow your host’s lead when it comes to swilling.

    However, don’t feel obligated to go against your personal ethics and restrictions. Also, keep your personal drinking limits in mind, even when someone at the table orders round after round. Sometimes in the bustle of a business dinner or a hosted night out, basic measures can be overlooked.

    “Drink slowly. Never drink on an empty stomach. Try to drink a lot of water,” said Jacqueline Whitmore, international etiquette expert and author of behaviour book Poised for Success.

    At the end of the day, don’t forget that your drinking companions are also your colleagues, bosses and clients. Professionalism is expected.

    “Sharing in food and drink will always help seal a deal,” said William Hanson, senior etiquette tutor at The English Manner. “(But) to a silent majority of people, a client, colleague or supplier getting mindlessly drunk in front of them will be off-putting and show them to have no control.”

  • Where the drinks flow freely…

    In China, Korea, Russia and Poland, among others, prepare to spend time outside the office with colleagues and hosts throwing back drinks. Social drinking is a major part of local culture, including business. Binge drinking also is widespread in the United Kingdom, both countries densely populated with pubs.

    Hosts feel responsible to show visitors a good time, which in these cultures is often synonymous with drinking. You will also often find hosts in these countries eager to share and insist you take part in local drinking customs and local liquors and spirits, such as tequila in Mexico, soju in Korea or vodka in Poland and Russia.

    “Drinking, in some cultures, is also a bonding activity — a way for an international clients to get to know you better and to see the ‘real’ you,” Whitmore said.

    Refusing alcohol outright in these countries has the potential to negatively influence business dealings, said Jan Jaap van Weering, an etiquette, manners and protocol trainer based in the Netherlands. It can also make you appear judgmental to your hosts. Still, if you cannot drink or are adverse to it, Whitmore recommends offering a medical excuse — a legitimate and respected way out, regardless of the country you’re working in. (Getty)

  • Karaoke culture

    Fun fact: In Korea, get ready to drink and sing. Fraternizing with work colleagues over drinks often concludes with a spirited karaoke session, and all are expected to participate regardless of talent. Karaoke bars are popular venues for post-work drinks. (Getty)

  • Where moderate is the norm…

    Countries with more moderate drinking habits vary in how they treat alcohol in work scenarios.

    European countries like Germany, France and Spain and Latin countries like Argentina tend to have a relaxed approach and attitude toward drinking. It is likely a business lunch will involve wine and that co-workers will migrate to a nearby bar after the workday. It is also not uncommon in some of these countries for offices to offer complimentary alcoholic beverages during the workday within the office.

    In the United States, drinking during the workday is generally frowned upon unless it is a special occasion. Still, happy hour (typically workdays between 16:00 and 20:00) is a cherished tradition and business dinners almost invariably involve alcohol.

    Even so, it is uncommon to see colleagues drink to excess. Even when alcohol seems constantly present and offered to you, “don't go overboard and see the free alcohol as an opportunity to get drunk,” Hanson said. (Getty)

  • For the love of beer

    Fun fact: Beer is everywhere in Germany. Germans have a phrase, “Das ist nicht mein Bier.” It translates literally to “This is not my beer,” which is used colloquially to mean, “That’s none of my business.” (Getty)

  • In drier countries…

    Muslim countries have strict laws regarding alcohol. While some are stringent, like Saudi Arabia, others like the United Arab Emirates are more lenient. It is essential to be clear on the legalities ahead of time. Consult embassy resources or, if your company regularly does business with a particular country, ask someone at your company. It also is advisable to read up on local news regarding the subject. Turkey, for example, tightened laws regarding alcohol sales in June.

    Foreigners are not above the law or protected by immunity when visiting such countries, which sounds obvious, but in practice can be easily forgotten, said etiquette experts.

    “I am constantly hearing stories (or meeting people) who have gotten into trouble when it comes to the no alcohol rules,” Hanson said. “Everyone always thinks they will be the ones that don't get caught out, but they always do.”

    While alcohol might appear in private settings or certain business environments, it is best not to seek it out. Be cautious even when it is offered by hosts seeking to be polite or accommodating to foreigners — alcohol consumption in public is punishable in some countries. (Getty)

  • Turkey's national drink

    Despite being home to a majority Muslim population, Turkey is governed by secular laws. One of the country’s national drinks is an anise-flavoured liquor called Raki, which is mixed with water (turning it cloudy) and then consumed. (Getty)