Festive Season Warning: A Look at Alcohol across Cultures

Matthew MacLachlan

8 Dec 2016

alcohol across cultures

Pleasure, tradition or a taboo?  How do you see alcohol? Attitudes towards alcohol can vary dramatically from one culture to another, making it difficult to know when it is appropriate to mention it, let alone drink it!

With the festive season fast approaching in many countries across the globe, it is a timely reminder to take a look at how alcohol is viewed around the world and learn some key rules about alcohol across cultures.

Alcohol across cultures: Don’t pack your preconceptions

It’s important to always know how alcohol is viewed wherever you are in the world

Showing the wrong attitude towards alcohol can make or break a relationship on both a social and professional level so it’s important to always know how alcohol is viewed wherever you are.

Alcohol in Russia

A very interesting article in the Financial Times looked at the role of vodka in Russian social and business culture.

Seen as an essential part of relationship building, it can be easy to jeopardise a business venture in Russia by forgetting to bring vodka and the mixer to celebrate a deal.

In Russia and other countries which have been influenced by Russian culture such as the Ukraine, people celebrate contracts and important milestones around a glass of vodka before they even leave the meeting room. People from these cultures will often expect foreigners to join them in toasting the success and enjoying what can at times be a large amount of alcohol.

East Asian Countries – China, Japan, Thailand

In East Asian countries such as China, Japan and Thailand, drinking alcohol is ingrained in the social life but only after work.

For instance, people from Thailand often drink alcohol to celebrate important occasions. They will also enjoy a glass of wine or beer at dinner, but doing so at lunch can be considered unprofessional and bad-mannered.

What about France?

When doing business in France it’s common to have an aperitif at the beginning of a professional meal to toast successful business, upcoming events or to health and life in general. It is also customary to drink wine throughout lunch or dinner in France, although they will usually consume less during the day.

The Gift of Alcohol

Alcohol is sometimes perceived to be a very generous or appropriate gift but always check with someone from the host country before bringing it

Gift-giving is often an important part of relationship building in many cultures so you may be expected to bring a gift at the start of a business venture or relationship. Some will expect a nice box of chocolates while others will appreciate a traditional or local product from your home country.

Alcohol is sometimes perceived to be a very generous or appropriate gift but always check with someone from the host country before bringing it.

Here are some facts of how alcohol is or isn’t appreciated as a gift in cultures around the world.

  • In France, offering a good bottle of wine or old spirit is appreciated. Many companies will offer bottles of wines or good whisky to their best clients for Christmas or other special occasions, and when visiting someone’s home it’s always a kind gesture to bring a nice bottle.
  • In Thailand, there used to be a well-practised tradition of giving alcohol to blue collar workers while white collar workers would receive a basket with biscuits, tea, alcohol, juices and coffee. More recently however people tend to avoid giving alcohol generally and instead offer baskets of fresh fruit.
  • When doing business with Jewish counterparts in Israel or elsewhere be aware that some will avoid drinking alcohol at all as part of their religious beliefs. Always check with your colleagues whether it is appropriate. In some cases wine is acceptable but it’s a good idea to buy bottles in a kosher wine specialist shop.

Alcohol as an Offence

For example in Saudi Arabia or Iran anyone bringing in alcohol could be arrested and prosecuted

Although social drinking is accepted in many business environments around the world, some countries prohibit alcohol consumption. In most Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East, drinking or offering alcohol could deeply offend your counterparts.

In some countries, it is not only a question of respect but also a legal one. For example in Saudi Arabia or Iran, anyone bringing in alcohol could be arrested and prosecuted.

When doing business in India and other countries with large populations of Hindus, you may therefore find mixed attitudes towards alcohol

For most Hindus, drinking or offering alcohol is usually perceived as disrespectful but this often depends on the generation of the individual and how much they follow the religious beliefs. When doing business in India and other countries with large populations of Hindus, you may, therefore, find mixed attitudes towards alcohol so it’s always best to check what is appropriate before drinking in public.

Be Careful- Even a Little Alcohol Can Get you into Trouble 

International businesses relationships can be threatened or strengthened with alcohol

Some international companies can also encounter problems regarding products containing traces of alcohol in the ingredients. Boxes of chocolate which contain liquor or salad dressing with white wine vinegar may be forbidden in countries like Saudi Arabia where laws around alcohol are very strict.

International businesses relationships can be threatened or strengthened with alcohol, depending on how it is used. It’s not something that people tend to think about when working across cultures, but their success can depend on whether they show the right attitude and behaviour towards alcohol.

Understanding the status of alcohol across cultures will help you avoid some important cultural faux-pas and strengthen your business relationship with your international counterparts

Cross-cultural training courses can help anyone working across cultures to understand how to avoid the risk that can come with not understanding local values and perceptions toward alcohol across cultures, whether a pleasure, tradition or sin.

Understanding the status of alcohol across cultures will help you avoid some important cultural faux-pas and strengthen your business relationship with your international counterparts.



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