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If politics and religion are the biggest conversational taboos at business lunches, the safest and most obvious option is probably the food itself. But even here, there are enough linguistic traps in English to make eating out a hazardous experience for the unprepared. To avoid the worst of these pitfalls, read on…

Defence Strategies for Guests

If your business lunch takes place in an English-speaking country, you’re probably hoping to making a good impression on your hosts, so you may have to make some compromises with the food, but there are measures you can take to defend yourself. If you have any allergies, learn how to explain them, practising any difficult pronunciations, and if possible, politely warn your hosts in advance when you plan the meal. If you know where you’re going to eat, you can search for details of the restaurant and its menu online, but even if you don’t there will almost certainly be a safe option like steak or salad in most places. Use your smartphone to check any suspicious-looking dishes and in case of overly insistent recommendations, learn how to say “I really can’t eat/drink X. Doctor’s orders…” Finally, think about the kind of questions you might need to ask in an unknown eatery and how people might answer, the most important being: “Where are the bathrooms, please?”   

Preparations for Hosts

If you’re hosting English speakers, remember that the same horrors that occurred to you while contemplating the scenario above are probably going through their minds, too. Unless you’re actively trying to intimidate, choose a restaurant that offers at least some safe “international” dishes, including vegan options, and avoid those that specialise in seafood, offal or unusually spicy food. Go for a place that you know and feel confident about, even if the staff don’t speak English (competitors who claim that they do are often lying) and ask if they can put you at a quiet table if possible. Background noise is one of your worst enemies during business lunches in a foreign language.

So much for the preparations. In my next blog, I’ll be looking more specifically at the vocabulary problems you might face on the front line, like the important differences between raw and rare, and the reason why asking for a pint of beer in a British pub is not going to make you a lot of friends.

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