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» Society » Drinking and Doing Business in Ukraine

Business and Ukrainian Hospitality

Vodka, anyone?

As you head off to Ukraine on business, it may be helpful to know something in advance about eating and drinking in business settings in Ukraine. Though this aspect of Ukrainian culture may cause some difficulty for non-drinkers* (see below), evenings spent in bars or restaurants or the homes of business partners may well be some of the most memorable moments of your business trip.
Ukrainians are very friendly towards guests (especially foreign guests) and generally go to great efforts to make sure you are fed well and get a chance to see the local sights. You can expect to be offered wine [vino], vodka [vodka], or cognac [kanyak] at most business meetings along with things like sandwiches [buterbrody], Ukrainian salads [salaty], slices of lard [sala], fruit [frukty], tea [chay], coffee [kofye], mineral water [mineralnaya vada], and cookies or wafers [pechenye]. After work is over for the day, you may well be taken to a restaurant (paid for by your hosts) for a tasty dinner with drinks. Ukrainian cuisine is excellent and almost always sits well with foreigners.

Drinking and toasts

Any alcohol served in such settings is accompanied by toasts. Depending on the size of the group and the nature of the occasion, dinner may last from one and a half to four hours (no joke) and have from four to 20 or more toasts. During toasts among larger groups the speaker often rises to his feet. Expect witty toasts to successful cooperation, friendship, women (traditionally the third toast, during which all the men will stand), etc. The better the group knows each other, the warmer and more personal the toasts will be. There may even be truly touching moments. Sometimes there may be singing if there is a guitar around. Ukrainians prefer sentimental ballads.
Though it may seem so at first, the purpose of these rituals is actually not to get drunk. Excessive drinking is usually seen as poor taste. Everyone except the very rare non-drinkers will get a little tipsy, but the group will sense when it has drunk enough and will gradually bring the night to a friendly close. Your business partners will usually want to demonstrate their best behavior. Some people even take activated carbon tablets to absorb the alcohol and avoid hangovers...
What is the purpose of drinking among business partners? In Ukraine everything, it seems, is based on informal relationships — business included. Eating and drinking together lowers barriers and encourages partners to talk about themselves and share sentiments with the group. It is a chance to see what each participant is made of and evaluate their trustworthiness and conscientiousness. Ukrainians want to have a warm and somewhat emotional working relationship with their business partners.

*NOTE! This article is directed at business people and officials, who, because of the formality of their work communication, have little choice but to participate in eating and drinking. If you are a non-drinker, make this known to your hosts in advance to avoid awkward misunderstandings. It is, of course, easier to turn down drinks in informal settings.