Ask a Cross-Cultural Expert: Coffee Etiquette Worldwide

09/30/2016 04:38 pm ET
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As legend has it, we can thank shepherds in Ethiopia who first recognized the rejuvenating power of coffee, when their goats became more energized after eating coffee beans.

So please join me in celebrating the 2nd annual International Coffee Day, October 1, 2016!

Coffee is a cross-cultural relationship builder, and not just in the coffee belt where it is grown. From Argentina to Vietnam, Austria to the U.S., the 77 members of the International Coffee Organization share the pleasures and benefits of coffee.

Celebrations worldwide include Istanbul, Turkey’s three-day festival where baristas, Turkish coffee connoisseurs, and caffeine enthusiasts alike gather around the coffee pot. The Czech Republic will host a week-long festival from October 1-7, 2016 in Brno to support local cafes and share coffee culture.

International business customs vary worldwide. When dining with global business counterparts worldwide, be aware that business topics may not arise until after dinner. Be observant since discussions may not begin in earnest until after coffee is poured. Cultural customs may include silent meals where dining is the focus, without commentary. When asked “would you like coffee?” keep these international protocol concepts in mind:

  • Coffee is a symbol of hospitality
  • Graciously accepting the host’s or hostess’ offer of coffee gives face
  • An offer of coffee signals a desire to visit and engage in conversation
  • Declining coffee signals the relationship is unimportant
  • Don’t drink coffee? Accept anyway, allow a cup to be poured and leave it to cool
  • Sugar is added before dairy, as it dissolves faster in hot coffee
  • Requesting decaffeinated coffee is acceptable
  • Requesting cappuccino or latte when it is not offered may cause loss of face
  • When drinking bottled iced coffee, pour it into a cup or glass
  • Drinking coffee from a container while simultaneously walking outdoors is taboo

Did you know that, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service’s Office of Global Analysis report for June 2015, 8 of the top 15 coffee producing countries, are in located in Central or South America (collectively known as “Latin America”)? These are: Brazil; Colombia; Costa Rica; Guatemala; Honduras; Mexico; Nicaragua; and Peru.

As far as the United States is concerned, we import the second largest amount of coffee beans (expected to reach 24 million bags annually) from top suppliers Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam. Indeed, international organization, Global Exchange reports that, “Coffee is the US’s largest food import and second most valuable commodity only after oil.”

One surprising fact, given the appearance of Starbucks on just about every street corner, is that of the 10,000 coffee cafes and 2,500 specialty stores in the U.S., less than a third of these are national brands. The vast majority are run independently!

Where does your favorite coffee originate? Take a few minutes to sit back, enjoy a cup and dream about sipping coffee in your favorite cafe.

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is accredited in intercultural management, is the resident etiquette expert for CBS Austin’s We Are Austin, regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, and numerous other media. She is the best-selling, international award-winning author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, named to Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2015 and recipient of the British Airways International Trade, Investment & Expansion Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.

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