A few years ago, when we visited Hong Kong, we met a colleague for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant.  Once the food was served, we noticed something interesting. The Asian-style meal of shared plates made eating together feel a bit like a dance, especially compared to our usual boxed-lunch meals back in Chicago. In Hong Kong, with spinning tables and shared plates, we needed to coordinate our movements together to navigate the food landscape – and make sure everyone got fed.

While a meal that requires coordination may sound stressful, there is an upside to this style of eating. Our research finds people who coordinate eating over a shared meal act more cooperatively in their business interactions.

Eating together is a great way to connect. Indeed, food is often associated linguistically with the notion of social connection and friendship. Compagnon is French for companion, and comes from the word pan for bread. The word huoban, which means friend in Chinese, is constructed from the character huo for cooking and ban for companion.

These linguistic associations reflect a simple truth: Food is an activity that brings people together. We come together over meals with family, friends, and colleagues. In our research, we tested whether the style of eating, above and beyond simply eating together, boosts the chances of having a successful interaction. In particular, we tested how sharing plates influences an interaction with a negotiation opponent or a business rival. 

Negotiations are complex interactions that require coordination between counterparts. People come to the table with conflicting demands, and perspective taking is required to understand what issues are important to the other party, and how much they are willing to budge. To test the effect of sharing plates, we had some negotiators eat off shared plates as with tapas or Asian-style meals, while others ate off separate plates. We then measured cooperation and efficiency of resolving a tense negotiation disagreement.  

Across our studies, we found that partners who shared plates were able to come to a faster resolution of the disagreement than those who ate the same food, but off their own individual plates. It turns out that the coordination required to eat from the same dish turned pairs into more cooperative negotiators. This was true when negotiating pairs were strangers and had never met before, and also for people who already knew each other.

In one study, pairs negotiated a tense wage dispute. One person took on the role of a manager, negotiating with a partner serving as the head of the labor union. While the manager wanted to keep union salaries down, the union demanded a higher wage for workers. The negotiation took place over a long and crippling strike that was costly for both parties. Specifically, each offer that was rejected prolonged that costly strike. To do well, negotiators need to quickly settle the wage dispute. These negotiations often end somewhere in the middle between the initial demands, but vary in how long they take, with longer negotiations becoming costlier for both parties. We found that sharing plates cut the length of the strike by a third. Those sharing plates resolved their negotiation in under 9 rounds compared with the 13 rounds it took those who ate the same food, but from separate plates. Pairs who took longer ended up incurring a (hypothetical) $1.5 million in losses, which translated into lower (actual) compensation.

So, what is it about sharing a plate that leads people to be more cooperative? Sharing a meal requires coordination – you have to think about your dining partner’s needs and monitor their movements. This forces you to take that person’s perspective, as you pay attention to how much food they take and accommodate their needs with your behavior. Attending to their needs when eating helps you attend to their needs when negotiating.

These results build on our previous work, which found that food has the power to connect even when we aren’t sharing a family-style or tapas meal. We found that when we eat the same food as our dining partner, we tend to feel closer to that person and like them more. In turn, we tend to trust that person more and end up cooperating with them more than if we are eating different food.

So, if you are hoping to smooth interactions with colleagues, clients or even family members, consider going to a restaurant that serves meals over shared plates, or try ordering an appetizer for the table to share. Coordinating with your dinner partner over the meal can help you get on the same page in other aspects of your life outside the meal. Or if shared plates aren’t your thing, try ordering the same food as the other person. Although you won’t be coordinating your movements, consuming similar food can increase closeness and liking, and potentially lead to greater trust down the road.

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