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We are a mid-sized IT company based out of India and one of our high-profile clients from the United States are visiting us. We already had a Townhall meeting where they addressed the entire organization and senior management (think CxOs). However, a few clients want to do a "Brown-Bag meeting" with teams that are handling their most critical projects. Given their kind gesture in such a tightly packed schedule, we feel the need to impress them about the work we've been doing so far and strengthen their trust. It would also serve as a great morale booster for individual team members and a tremendous opportunity to get noticed.

However, we are not too familiar with the concept of "brown bag" meeting. A quick Google search revels that

An informal meeting that takes place over lunch. This type of meeting is called a brown bag meeting because participants provide their own lunches. In the business world, a brown bag meeting would take place in the office, probably in the conference room. Brown bag meetings save companies money because they don't have to supply food or drink for the attendees. If a business wants to host a more formal meeting, it might do so at a classy restaurant and pay for every participant's food and drink. Investopedia

The food is not a problem because it will be supplied by our canteen vendors. Clients insisted that people can also bring home cooked food and not to alter any routines for them.

Now, I understand that it is an informal meeting. But I don't want our team to mess it up. We're trained well for handling formal business lunches but this is the first time we'll be doing a casual over-lunch meeting in presence of clients and our bosses.

This Workplace Question deals with client visit in general. I am looking forward for DOs and DONTs in a brown-bag meeting with US clients. For instance, since it's informal, is there a possibility that personal details (marital, family etc...)/ general topics(outside work, politics, laws) might be discussed? Are there any best practices to adopt?

  • Pack a lunch, I think. – user42272 Feb 11 '16 at 14:42
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    We're trained well for handling formal business lunches. Well, if that's the case, then you don't have to worry. Brown-bag lunches are much easier than formal ones, because there's a lighter atmosphere. If you can handle a formal meeting, you can for sure handle an informal one ;) . Picture it like Michael Schumacher driving to work: it's super easy :D . – Radu Murzea Feb 11 '16 at 14:46
  • Have you clarified with the clients about whether or not they're actually bringing their own food? You could offer to provide plates or a place to reheat, napkins, etc. – user8365 Feb 11 '16 at 16:23
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I've never participated in such a meeting, and I'm not aware of all the cultural triggers or idiosyncrasies of Indian vs American cultures, but here's just a few quick things to keep in mind:

  • No one likes a smelly lunch.

If you're gonna pack a bunch of people in a meeting room, all with their own lunches, maybe make sure that someone doesn't bring the most pungent dish ever known to man-kind.

Some people enjoy tasting local food, and experiencing new flavors, however a good portion of North Americans travel to foreign locations and seek out a McDonald's over a local restaurant.

  • Advise people not to make a mess/bring a "complicated" lunch

A catered lunch is typically "cleaner" because all the food is laid out on trays. People just pick up whatever they like, and the event moves along.

With packed lunches people often unpack their food (sometimes noisily), spend time organizing 5 different Tupperware containers in front of themselves, etc.

You may wish to avoid some of that hullabaloo, and simply focus on the actual meeting.

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Tone of a Brown Bag:

Americans can be pretty casual. In many cases, leaders in the position of power will seek to bring everyone to a largely similar level, in an effort to get honest answers and clear communication. It's certainly part of the US corporate culture. And the "bring lunch you like, don't put on a ceremony for us" type communication you are hearing comes from that basic cultural mentality.

With that said - it's a tricky line to walk - the client is still the client and deserves respectful communication and they will expect to be in control of final choices.

Content:

When someone has called a brown bag lunch, I still expect the lunch to stay on topic. It sounds to me like they would like to dig into the details on key projects. Usually (because everyone will be eating), there is no expectation that anyone has a prepared slide deck or reading material or demos or any other type of formal presentation. Instead, as the folks who are doing things and in the know about the project status, you may want to have in mind key highlights and issues that you or the team want to discuss. Areas where work has gone very well or very poorly, and ideas on how to repeat the good stuff and fix the mistakes. It's OK to have problems - but you want to have recommendations in mind.

With the clients on site, it's particularly useful to use that face time to negotiate communication challenges that are often loaded topics when there is no body language.

Other preparation:

Get to know exactly who you are meeting with and their role in the project, so you can address areas where those specific individuals can have an impact. Also - it's certainly OK to ask THEM questions about their perception of the work.

Food & Etiquette:

Being an American who LOVES traveling to India, and who fits herself happily into Indian culture, I feel fairly comfortable saying - the eating divide can be huge, and there's no easy way to tell how India-compatible your Americans are. :)

If I were to say to my Indian friends "please bring food from home" - I'd really mean it, because home made Indian food is WAY better than American restaurant Indian food that's for sure!!! And the smell of it, eating with your hands, and all other parts of eating Indian food with Indians only adds to the tastiness of the experience for me.

But I am likely to be the outlier on a group of 12 American corporate folks. Take the average group of Americans, and most won't know how to eat rice with their hands, 2-3 will think that garlic is pungent and spicy, and only 2 will be satisfied with a veg meal. In a corporate American environment, brown bag lunch usually equals dry cold sandwiches, non-messy fruit, soups, salads and the occasional tupperware leftovers. The food is largely odorless due to the blandness of the flavor and the way that American food products are processed.

I would hope that Americans traveling in India, asking for a brown bag, would be tolerant, but you may want to get a sense of their opinions prior to the lunch if you can, and plan simple taste-based adjustment - like forks for rice, bread based foods, and less pungent foods.

Non-work topics:

It can happen. On a regular work day, I don't expect it. I expect that if my colleagues want to talk about personal life stuff, then we're actually going to leave the office and/or discuss it after hours. And that in a requested brown bag meeting, we're going to be largely focused on work topics.

With that said, brown bags are a bit less formal, and it could quite easily be that you end up addressing cultural divide topics in the midst of talking through work-related issues. In terms of casual conversation, Americans tend to try to avoid topics of gender, sex, and religion as taboo in corporate environments. Finance, politics, and sports are usually fair game. They don't know anything about cricket, though. :) But many like soccer (aka football).

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So you have some Americans visiting from the US and you are in India?

I am reading between the lines and it is simply some of the Americans just don't like Indian food. Rather than ask for a specific menu they are offering to bring their own lunch.

Clients insisted that people can also bring home cooked food and not to alter any routines for them.

Don't bring sloppy or highly aromatic food. Something simple that you can eat and converse.

As far a personal discussion - keep it professional as you would any meeting.

  • So... no curry? – Kilisi Feb 11 '16 at 15:29
  • Really? -1 You don't think a comment would have been more constructive? – paparazzo Feb 11 '16 at 20:00
  • It wasn't me, I didn't think it was that bad – Kilisi Feb 11 '16 at 20:09
  • If you're going to be the first negative vote, at least comment and give a chance to possibly fix the answer or at least defend it. – user8365 Feb 11 '16 at 20:36
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I've generally found that the easiest way to deal with potential cultural differences is to simply ask. We Americans are notorious for assuming that other cultures understand what they want when they ask for something specific. We're getting better. To my mind, I would think very highly of an Indian vendor who got hold of me, said he had done some research into the meaning of "brown bag lunch", and then said he had found a bit of a variety in explanations and asked me to spell out what I would like to do for lunch, offering several possible options.

The more these discussions happen, the better it is for the working relationship, too, since it opens the door for further discussions about culture. Cultural misunderstandings can cost millions, if they are incorporated into IT requirements. Habits that you form in non-critical situations like how to handle lunch will carry over into critical situations like how to discover an IT requirement.

I use a funny example in my classes, to demonstrate how wrong things can go when two different cultures interact to do business. In this MASH episode, Trapper John has ordered a pinstripe suit from the Korean peddler, with this result. It's a perfect example of how difficulties in gathering requirements get compounded when two different cultures are involved.

So, as far as I'm concerned, the more questions you ask, the better your relationship with your client will be.

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