Food is the common experience that brings us together

Successful multiculturalism is obviously a lot more than a taste for foreign spices.

But sharing food can be a very profound experience. It is an essential part of the human experience and it is a simple thing to do, indeed a very enjoyable way to open our eyes – and our palates.

"Food transcends all boundaries and reminds us even in diversity and variety we have much in common."
Susie Babani, Global Chief Human Resources Officer

I have never aligned myself to just one background. I was born and brought up in London (a multicultural mix even back then) with a German mother and a father of Turkish and Spanish extraction. Both my parents came from very different religious backgrounds. They had a 25 year age gap between them and as a young child I was immersed in German language as much as English.

We celebrated a broad variety of holidays and often in different ways to the norm – we celebrated on Christmas Eve not Christmas Day.

So, quite a lot of diversity in a small family unit of three. I confuse people: I talk like a Brit (mostly) but I do not have a drop of English blood. What does all this make me? Well I have always liked to think of myself as a “Citizen of the World" (if only such a passport existed I suspect a lot of dissent could be eradicated…)

I might not have a Citizen of the World passport but I think I have a claim to the palate.

I grew up eating food ranging from bratwurst and kartoffelsalat to Baba Ghanoush to salt beef on rye with a dill pickle – depending on what mood we were in. While I sometimes pretended to long for baked beans on toast like all the other kids I actually relished the diversity of food I ate as a result of my background.

I was always encouraged to be curious and adventurous about what I ate and never allowed to turn something down (unless I was willing to go hungry – and I never was!). As I got older and travelled more, one of the main joys for me was being able to eat things I had never had before, not just because it might taste great (and believe me I discovered some wonderful delicacies) but also because so many cultures coalesce around food – it is where business is done, where friends are made, where families come together.

I have been privileged to work in seven countries and four continents over my career. I am also a great leisure traveller and have so far visited just over 80 countries (aiming for the magic 100 of course!) but there is a big difference between passing through and actually living and working in a different culture and country.

Yet the shared table does provide invaluable insights. In some cultures I have found this particularly relevant. For example in China, the way to connect with colleagues is to eat out together and share food. As the senior guest of honour I have often been given first taste of everything – luckily I take the view “try it and see what you think and don't ask what it is until you have!" I therefore sampled chicken feet, jelly fish, snake soup and fish eyeballs.

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If you like something, you like it - but how many opportunities in life might we miss out on because we are not willing to give something new a try, often just because we don't like the sound of it?

For me, sharing food has been a great way to literally “sample" different cultures and to mingle with people with a relaxed, inquisitive and open mind - without the constraints of being in a formal meeting or negotiation.

So that brings me to A Taste of Harmony (celebrated the week of 16 March) – for which I am an ambassador.

When Peter Scanlon, Chair of the Scanlon Foundation came to talk to me and Mike Smith, our CEO (who has worked in even more countries than I have!) six years ago about the idea of having a week where our employees could celebrate cultural diversity, we were both hooked on the idea from the word go.

From small beginnings back then we are now at the point where every year more than 20,000 of our employees participate, from 11 of the countries in which we operate.

A Taste of Harmony encourages colleagues to share food and stories from different cultural backgrounds across the globe. Some people take the opportunity to make it very festive, dressing up in different national costumes, running a concurrent culture quiz and organising a potluck meal where each person brings in (or often cooks) a dish reflecting their background to share with their colleagues.

One of my fondest memories of A Taste of Harmony was at our office in New York City. Every single employee in this 100-strong office formed into teams of four and supplied food from Latin America, India, Southeast Asia, New York delis, Australia, Eastern Europe, France and many more.

I will never forget seeing a mature markets trader explain he had chosen his Hungarian grandmother's recipe for stuffed cabbages as it took him back to his childhood and he wanted to share that with his colleagues – not a dry eye in the house!

(And of course lots of empty plates afterwards.)

Food really does transcend all boundaries. It brings people together, it gives us something to share, it encourages conversation. And it reminds us even in diversity and variety we have much in common.

Bon Appetit.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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