The business meal is in peril. Americans made close to half a billion fewer trips to a restaurant during lunchtime in 2017 than they did in 2016, according to the Wall Street Journal. People are busier now than they used to be, making dining out during work-hours seem decadent. Besides, who needs a restaurant when you can pick up a subsidized poke boll from the corporate cafeteria?
To make matters worse, those of us who do occasionally do business over food are picking the wrong kinds of cuisines, according to a new study from researchers at Cornell and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. They find that when it comes to building consensus, a fancier, plated meal might be doing you a disservice. Instead, negotiators fare best when they share not only the same food but the same plate. Their findings will be published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Science.
In practical terms? This means you should go for wings, not the burger, and feel free to expense those business dumplings. And if the boss is buying, forget the four course French dinner entirely and opt for some lavish Dim Sum.
“Every meal that you’re eating alone is a missed opportunity to connect to someone,” researcher Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral sciences and marketing at the Booth School, explains in a statement. “Every meal that involves food sharing fully utilizes the opportunity to create that social bond.”
Why Sharing Plates Actually Matters
To be sure, it’s not the kind of cuisine that matters so much as the act of sharing the vessel that the food itself comes in (though the researchers also note that for more communal dining, Indian or Chinese is going to be a safer bet). In one of the experiments, the researchers gave two groups of people chips and salsa to share. One group got their own bowls of salsa to eat out of, while the other one shared.
Then, each set of groups were assigned roles in a faux negotiation, some were managers and some were representatives for a union. Over the course of 22 rounds of negotiations, the two groups had to arrive at a set wage, with each round representing one day. The team that ate salsa out of the same bowls arrived at a deal in about nine “days,” which was four days sooner than the ones that ate out of different bowls.
That’s almost half the time! The researchers estimate that, had they been actual workers on an actual strike, the decision to serve each pair’s salsa in individual bowls would have cost the overall enterprise $1.5 million in hypothetical losses.
It didn’t matter how the people felt about one another, either, the researchers note that they conducted similar versions of the experiment using strangers and friends. What does seem to matter is the pseudo-collaboration that goes into sharing a plate, passing a plate to one another, for example, or offering your interlocutor the last bite. The findings were strong enough, the researchers write, as to indicate a drawback for remote meetings, which really don’t offer the same opportunity to connect face-to-face as breaking bread over a meal.
The findings also suggest that, for all the perceived decadence, the good old fashioned business lunch may be due for a comeback.