25 Feb 2021

Who ate my salad??

European Projects Behind the Scenes (8)

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL

“People in different countries eat their salad differently. Sometimes the dinner starts with a salad and is followed by a main dish and a dessert. In France, it happened that I received the salad after the main course. In other places, the salad accompanies the main course. This was also the case in Slovenia where something interesting happened. Each of us got the salad served on our left side. Still, my neighbor did not realize it since he was deeply engaged in a conversation. So, he unintentionally ate my salad! Even more funny was that his left neighbor followed his approach and also ate the salad on his right side, which originally belonged to my neighbor. I am not sure when this chain was interrupted but the fact is that I lost my salad – and it was the tomato one which I prefer the most!”  

In one of my previous posts, I already wrote about the rituality in European projects which enhances the integration within a project team. Dinner that follows a day-long meeting is for sure one of the crucial elements of this process. People feel and act differently in these kinds of informal situations. Understanding the meaning of informal socializing and corresponding rituality of the backstage is of main importance for successful project management.

In his substantial work “Distinction” the French anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu studied the taste of the French society and demonstrated that different habits exist in relation to dining when you compare the working class with the middle and upper classes. Following his thought, we could also claim that project dinner follows a certain “bourgeois aesthetics” and habitus, being organized more around the form of eating. Meaning that the concrete content of the dinner (i.e., the actual food) is not the main part and is not in the exact center of the attention. The dinner is rather seen as an opportunity for meeting more informally, socializing, chatting, and also for having deeper discussions (e.g., around new project proposals) which demand from participants a certain amount of cultivated behavior while eating.

“You need to be able to connect with others and join the conversation not to be perceived as weird. I am not saying that you have to constantly push yourself in the center of attention, praise yourself, and so on. You need to have a feeling when to take the initiative when to comment on something, provide compliments, tactfully criticize, and when to leave space for others to speak. A general understating of certain topics is required, some basic knowledge that you acquire during your education and different activities, such as reading books and professional magazines, visiting museums, cultural or sports events and similar.”

“The topics discussed during dinner are quite diverse, ranging from arts to sports, science, history, etc. This is why I frequently prepare myself. I look up some basic information on the city and country that I visit, their history, architecture, key artists and writers (sometimes I even read their book); I also check the political situation; I find out which football clubs play in town; how to say “thank you”, “hello” and “cheers” in the local language and so on. This kind of basic knowledge was always very well accepted by the hosts and made a positive impression.”

Both examples indicate that for a successful engagement in European projects the content-specific knowledge in relation to project substance is not the only requirement. A certain amount of “cultural capital” in a manner of general knowledge about the world, a broader outlook, language skills, and intercultural communication is needed as well. Even more, embodied knowledge is reflected through bodily practices, gestures, meaningful postures which are embedded in “rules of etiquette” and are transferred without the use of language. And we can analyze and understand respective skills only in concrete situations and through observing the actual practice.

“During dinner, I observed the project leader and his aristocratic manners – how he folded and placed the napkin on his knees; his up-straight posture when eating; how he was constantly holding arms close to himself not to disturb the neighbors with elbows; how he cited Voltaire before we all started eating; and the specific “half past five” position of the knife and fork that he made when he finished his meal.”

The dining style and patterns represent the aesthetic category. In contrast, the project lunch is more in a function of actual eating/consuming food – therefore more of a practical nature – and the reason behind it is that we need to feed the people in a certain amount of time (as set by the meeting agenda) so that they will be able to continue with the meeting. Still, the project dinner evolves more around the course aesthetics, hiding the pure materialistic meaning of eating. Sometimes, very late dinners can cause issues to certain people, like insomnia and morning fatigue. Statements like “dinner was excellent, however, this is too much food for me” or “I am not used to eating so late in the night; this is why I had problems sleeping” can be frequently encountered during the next day morning coffee, before the start of the meeting. Even though some people can feel bad due to exaggerated off-limit eating and drinking, dinner is still one of the key parts of the project as a whole, which we cannot and also do not want to avoid.

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL researcher and project manager, reflects on the background of European projects, i.e. all practices, events and activities that are not publicly discussed, but nevertheless significantly affect the acquisition of projects, their course and long-term success (or failure). He formulates findings and recommendations on the basis of conversations with project managers, coordinators, researchers, supervisors, consultants and evaluators – with all those who are in any way involved in the phenomenon of European projects.

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