The reasoning behind culture

Restaurants in Germany do not offer water at the table. You are expected to buy water or a beverage with your meal, often at a high price.

Unlike India, there is no market in Germany for water purifiers. Tap water in German cities is good enough to drink, and most people consume it at home. A few people though buy bottled water for household consumption.

In German restaurants the problem arises when these two worlds collide. Therefore, the restaurants play it safe by offering only bottled water. When people ask for tap water at the table, they refuse citing health risks. If someone were to fall sick after consuming that water, the restaurant would not want to be held responsible.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable explanation. Now let us look at some glaring exceptions.

In India, every restaurant regardless of how large and fancy or small and simple offers water at the table. In Indian culture, it is considered inhospitable to not offer water to a guest. Being a warm country, this makes immediate sense. Now one might argue that standards for restaurant hygiene in India can vary from Germany. But water is served at the table in the US, where these standards are comparable, as well as in Sweden where the climate is actually colder.

On-board budget airlines in India, I noticed that even the cheapest carrier offers water for free. At that time, I was convinced that this was an international airline regulation in conjunction with the prohibition of carrying containers with more than 100ml of fluid in one’s hand luggage. On flying budget European carriers, I realized this wasn’t true – you had to buy every drop of drinking water on-board. Besides, I also realized that one could pass through security with an empty bottle and fill it up at a fountain afterwards. It wasn’t logic or rationale that drove these airline norms – it was culture. And once a culture is established, one can often find good reasons to back it up.

Culture is best summed up by Seth Godin in one phrase – People like us do things like this.

This principle applies to budget airlines as well as restaurants. Once a culture is established, it seeps into every crack in a society, making it hard to change. For instance, in Germany, even a €5 meal in a roadside takeaway can charge you €1 for half a liter of bottled water. As a result, most restaurants in Germany make a disproportionate share of their profits from selling beverages – much like movie theaters that price their tickets low and sell popcorn and nachos at sky-high rates. These profit models end up further reinforcing the existing culture and perpetuating it.

Given this information, it is tempting to think that a few German restaurants can gain a competitive advantage by serving water at the table and differentiate themselves. That would be a logically sound proposal, but that simply isn’t what German restaurants do. Michael Porter once stated that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If culture were dining at a German restaurant, it would eat that rationale I stated above as a side-dish and down it with a swig of bottled water.

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