(Richard D. Lewis. When Cultures Collide: Managing successfully across cultures. - USA: Today's Librarian. - P. 142-152.)
"Manners maketh man”. Cross-culturally speaking, they can unmaketh him as well. In a really free world we should be able to wipe our plates with bread like the French, hawk and spit like the Mongolians, belch like the Fijians, drink ourselves legless like the Finns, voice unpopular opinions like the Germans, turn up late like the Spaniards, snub people like the English and eat with our left hand in Saudi Arabia. In theory, there is no such thing as international etiquette, but certain mannerisms are acceptable only at home!
In our own culture we are provided with a code for behaviour. There is right and wrong, proper and improper, respectable and disreputable. The code, taught by parents and teachers and confirmed by peers and contemporaries, covers not only basic values and beliefs, but correctness of comportment and attitudes in varying circumstances. The rules may or may not be enshrined in law, but in one’s own society they may not be broken without censure or with impunity. Unless we are eccentric, we conform. At home we know how to behave at table, at cocktail parties, in restaurants, at meetings and at a variety of social occasions. We are also fully cognisant of the particular taboos which our own culture imposes.
The well-brought-up citizen not only feels comfortable with the code, but in the main actually welcomes it. It is a familiar regulatory mechanism which stops people making fools of themselves or being considered outsiders. All societies have outsiders, of course, but most of us prefer to be insider. Generally speaking, it is less hassle. A problem arises, however, when we go abroad. As a representative of out country, we would like to show what good manners we have. Unfortunately, what are good manners in one country can be eccentricity or downright bad manners in another, as anyone who blows their nose in a beautiful white handkerchief in front of a Japanese will soon find out. International travellers face a dilemma. Should they maintain their impeccable behaviour from back home and risk inevitable faux pas, or should they imitate the people they visit and risk ridicule?
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as international etiquette. When someone begins to formulate an international code for correct behaviour, they instinctively look to their own norms as being the logical, acceptable, inoffensive ones.
Sincerity takes us a long way. Europeans, Asians and Americans meet regularly on business and at conferences and manage to avoid giving offence, by and large, by being their honest selves. The Americans are genial and sincere, the French gallant and sincere, the British reasonable and sincere, Germans and Russians unsmiling but sincere, Finns clumsy but sincere, the Japanese smiling and sincere (although unfortunately Europeans and Americans think their smiles are insincere). The odd dinner or business meeting we carry off well in the euphoria generated by the host’s generosity and the guest’s appreciative attentiveness. At such initial gathering faux pas are ignored, even considered charming. The question of correct comportment in a foreign environment only becomes pressing when the exposure is lengthened. A protracted host-guest relationship or, even more, an ongoing business relationship, places greater strain on the tolerance and patience thresholds of both parties as goes by. The American habit of sprawling in chairs at business conferences may seem friendly and disarming to the British, but would place Germans in a constant state of unease ether in their own offices or the Americans’. Mexican unpunctuality; forgiven once, become unacceptable if endemic. Latin loquacity, engaging at first for Finns and Swedes, soon drives them up the wall. There is a limit to the number of cups of green tea a European can accept in a day.
Learning the ropes
Once the honeymoon of the first acquaintance is over, international travellers/businesspeople seek a behaviour pattern which will serve them adequately wherever they find themselves. Some things come easily – hand-shaking or bowing, ladies first or ladies last, chocolates or flowers for the hostess. Other features give a little more trouble – the use of chopsticks, the texture of local small talk, the concept of time in a particular country. The deeper we delve, the harder it gets. What are the important social norms? What are the core beliefs? The real sensitivities? Above all, what is strictly taboo?
They don't always tell you. Everyone knows that it is inadvisable to send the firm's best-known drinker to represent you in Saudi Arabia and that Arabs do not eat pork, but is one aware that it is bad manners to point one's foot at an Arab in conversation or ask about the health of any of his womenfolk? Did you know that sending yellow flowers to a woman signifies, in some European countries, that she has been unfaithful to her husband?
Let us take a look at the areas where major gaffes may cause offence and minor ones some embarrassment – dining table etiquette, cocktail parties, restaurant behaviour, meetings, social norms and finally taboos.
An old Malagasy proverb says: 'Men are like the lip of a cooking-pot, which forms just one circle.' By this one might understand that the basic human need for food serves as a uniting factor, at least temporarily. This is more than likely, though what people do around that cooking pot can differ to a startling degree. To begin with, eating is actually more important to some of us than to others. We often hear it said that Americans eat to live and that the French live to eat. This may he an oversimplification, but it is a fact that many Americans have a Coke and burger in the office, the English a sandwich or pub lunch, and Scandinavians are in and out of the company canteen in 30 minutes flit. In contrast, the French attach social importance to the midday meal, which may last from one to two hours. Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks rarely rush it either.
People also eat at very different times. Nordics, who begin work early, have very little breakfast, but are starving by noon. Finns have lunch at 11.30. while 12.30-1 is a European norm. Spaniards rarely get the meal on the table before 2 and used to carry on until 4 or 5 pm, although their membership of the European Union causing the younger executives at least to get back to the office by 3 and cut out the siesta. An even greater variety of eating times is apparent for the evening meal. Finns are starving again around four and they, along with the Japanese 'salarymen' and the British working classes, precede the rest of us to the table around 5.30 pm. Canada and New Zealand, too, take an early 'supper'. The Australians hang on a bit longer, the Americans and most northern and central Europeans sit down around 7.30, while the Spaniards and Portuguese, still digesting lunch, do not want to see food again till 9 or 10pm, often leaving it much later than that. A dinner invitation in Spain or Portugal for 8 or 8.30 means that the main course is likely to be served between 10 and 11. Chinese and other Asians start the evening meal at 8-9pm, although Indonesians have an aversion to dining early.
When invited to dinner at someone's home, most nationalities turn up at the appointed time – it is quite a different matter for cocktail parties. Unpunctuality, is, however, no disgrace in Spain, when an invitation for 9pm means 9.30 in any case.
Seating arrangements, when round a table, are often casual and left to the last minute in many countries, although Asians invariably seat the most important guest facing the door. In Europe, the French and Germans are more careful about placing people, bearing in mind their various interests and status. It is the Swedes, however, who behave most formally at table. Swedish hospitality notwithstanding, dinner in Stockholm can be quite an ordeal. The chief guest escorts the hostess to the table and sits on her left, unlike most countries, which prefer the right. Schnapps are served at the beginning and the guest of honour must initiate the toasting. The first toast will be to the hostess and a short speech is required. One raises one's glass, proclaims the toastee's name, looks into his or her eyes, utters the magic word ’skål’, knocks back a fair amount of the firewater, holds one's glass up again for another two-second eye contact, then places the glass firmly on the table. As the dinner proceeds each person round the table must skål and be skåled in this way. If anyone is forgotten by anyone else, it might not be forgiven easily. The biggest scandal, of course, is if you ‘skål’ the hostess if more than eight people are present at the table. A Swedish couple from the small town of Gävle told me that some years earlier an important French visitor had done this to his hostess and that the people of Gävle had talked about little else since. Swedes are great after-dinner speakers and at large dinners (50 guests or more) lengthy toasts and speeches can take up to two hours. Guests are expected to speak English, French, or German if they can't manage Swedish. You can be either humorous or pompous – both styles seem to go down well.
In most countries the signal to start eating is given by the host or hostess. In France it is 'bon appétit', in Germany 'guten Appetit', in Italy 'buon appetito' and so on. Anglo-Saxons have no equivalent for this formula and often mutter 'right' or say nothing. This is very disconcerting for French people who invariably come out with 'good appetite'. One Frenchman, on being told one says nothing, waved his spoon hesitatingly over his soup for a moment, then grunted 'Eh bien, alors – bonne nuit' before tucking in. The Japanese formula is 'itadakimasu' (I am receiving), although they will probably have preceded this by saying something nice about the appearance of the food. Japanese attach as much importance to the aesthetic arrangement or layout of the food as its actual taste, so in Japan you should not attack a dish without complimenting your hostess on her artistry.
How many courses
Anglo-Saxons are used to eating three courses – starters, main dish, and dessert. In other societies, the number of dishes may be far more numerous. The French, for instance, serve many side dishes such as lettuce, haricot verts, endives, asparagus, and artichoke separately, whereas the British tend to put as much as they can on one plate. In Asia one can lose count of the number of dishes, although in China they will be placed on the table five or six at a time. The Japanese, when seeking to impress, can serve a very large number of dishes one after the other, each containing a small, easily digestible amount. Once hosted by a Japanese college principal, I counted 19 consecutive courses, all paper-thin slices of fish or meat (17 fish to 2 meat) and arranged concentrically overlapping to cover the whole plate.
According to the customs of the country, meals may be taken sitting or at table, on the floor, or on the ground. In Japan it is common to sit on tatami matting, in Arabian countries on carpets, linoleum or polished surfaces, in Tonga, Fiji and most of Polynesia on grass or firm soil. When not at table, Europeans and Americans have to decide how to arrange their legs, not being able in general to squat for long in the eastern manner. In Japanese and Arabian households shoes are generally removed and left in the hall. Chopsticks are used in several Asian countries, particularly Japan and China, and Caucasians are advised to acquire enough aptitude with them at least to get morsels into the mouth. Clumsiness is normally overlooked although goodness knows what they really think of us. We get our own back when some of them use knives and forks. In Arab countries one usually eats with the hand – the right one – as the left is reserved for 'dirty' tasks, whatever those may be. It is not easy to eat a huge leg of lamb oozing gravy with one hand. You need to roll up the right sleeve before you start – the gravy will run down your forearm in any case. Most homes have an adjoining washroom to which you repair periodically to wash the gravy off. The choicest cuts are handed to you by the host – it is bad manners to take a piece yourself or to decline the piece he offers you, too big though it may be. Rice will be squeezed into balls by the host (by hand) and given to you directly. You may squeeze further balls of rice yourself but do not touch the lamb on the serving plate. Don't touch any food with your left hand unless you have informed the host at the beginning of the meal that you are left-handed, in which case remember that your right hand is the dirty one. In Malagasy families the leg of lamb is exclusively the father's portion.
Starters vary in different countries. Japanese sasbimi (raw fish) is arguably among the most delicious (and expensive), raw or smoked fish also being popular in Scandinavian countries. French bors d'oeuvre often consist of crudités. Italians favour antipasta (often parma ham). Americans shrimp cocktails and (recently) potato skins, Greeks tsatsiki and taramasalata and Turks yoghurt. Spaniards like to have a tapas session before dinner. Americans whet their appetite with pre-dinner guacamole and cheese dips. In virtually all countries, however, soups are a great stand-by and often a particular soup is closely associated with the national cuisine. In Spain, it is gazpacho, in France soupe a l'oignon and bouillabaisse, in Austro-Hungary goulasch, in Russia bortsch, in China shark's fin or bird's nest, in Nordic countries pea, in Italy minestrone, in Germany oxtail and in the United States clam chowder. All of these soups, whether hot or cold, are normally ordered as starters. In Japan misoshiro soup is eaten at or near die end of the meal, as is the sopa alentejana in the Portuguese province of Alentejo. In the later case, the peasants used to fill up on soup, as main courses were often inadequate in this once poverty-stricken region.
Soups are normally eaten with metal soup spoons; in China they are ceramic and a special shape. In Japan and Korea one lifts die soup bowl to the mouth and drinks the contents accompanied by legitimate slurping. In these countries rice is also slurped up from close quarters with chopsticks.
It is a noisy process, but perfectly good manners. Most Europeans tip dish towards themselves when spooning out the last dregs – in England it is considered good manners to tilt the soup plate away from oneself in the closing stages.
Main courses around the world are too numerous and varied to describe here. Strange though many foods may seem, most dishes are edible and even tasty when one has familiarised oneself with them. Sashimi, which puts a lot of Anglo-Saxons off at first tasting, is one of the world’s great dishes, priceless for its subtlety and delicate flavour. One can hardly say the same of Korean kimshi, some Vietnamese fish and eel dishes and various offering in the small villages along the Yangtse. Fijian kava tastes (and looks) like mud to the uninitiated.
International travellers should eat as much as they can, to avoid offending their hosts. Americans and particularly English are well placed to gel their revenge if they want to by offering their own cooking to visitors on Anglo-Saxon shores. In general, although one offers one's best and tries to follow the good manners of the host country. It is as well to know that an Australian country breakfast may consist of a huge beefsteak with two fried eggs on top and that in Madagascar you should not hand an egg directly to another person, but place it on the floor first. In Tonga and Hawaii you bury meat for a while before you eat it, in Japan you can eat whalemeat and live lobsters (they watch you eat them).
Unusual table manners are not limited to Third World or out-of-the-way countries. The English take the use of a knife and fork for granted, but Americans do not keep a knife in their hand while eating. First they cut the meat with their knife in the right hand and fork in the left. Then they put the knife down by the side of the plate, transfer the fork from left hand to right, slightly dip the left shoulder and start eating in what to the British looks like a lopsided manner. The British habit of eating vegetables (even peas) with the fork upside down is scorned by the Americans and Europeans. The French – great eaters – use bread as an extra utensil, pushing anything else around with it and eventually employing a chunk to wipe the plate clean and save the dish washers extra effort. It might not look very civilised around Cadogan Square, but what are the French to think of a society which eats its cheese after dessert?
Japanese, westernised in many things, do not usually eat dessert. Neither are they very fond of cheese or lamb, so remember that when you invite them home. In Japan the main things to remember are to say how nice everything looks, keep eating a little of each dish at a time without finishing any off, and lifting up your glass when someone offers to fill it. You in turn should fill up their glass, and any others you can reach. When you have drunk enough sake, turn your sake cup upside down. In China you should never take the last morsel from a serving plate and never at any time during the meal say you are hungry. In the Finnish countryside they serve new potatoes with their skins on at the table and you are supposed to peel them before eating. Finns can do this with a knife and fork without touching the hot potatoes, which burn the fingers of the uninitiated. In England we are told not to put our elbows on the dining table and to sit with our hands in our lap when we have finished. Mexicans are told to put both hands on the table during and after the meal; it is taboo to hide them under the table. In Fiji and some other coun-tries it is polite (even mandatory) to belch or burp after completing your meal, to show appreciation. Don't do it in the wrong country. (Swedish hostesses would faint.) In China you know when the meal is ended, for the host stands up and thanks you for coming.
In the United States many Britons have been shocked when on their first helping of the main course, the host asks them, 'Did you get enough?' The use of the past definite (instead of the present perfect, 'Have you had enough?') implies to the Brit that there is no more to be had. In fact the American is offering more, so you may legitimately reply, 'I sure didn't!'
There are no fixed rules for cocktail parties, which in themselves are often interesting exercises in cross-cultural behaviour. No one is quite sure what is the best time to arrive, the best time to leave and how long the party should last. Then there is the question of what one drinks, how much one eats and what one talks about. Having a few friends at home for drinks in one's own country is a relatively simple affair. Larger parties with a multi-national guest list require considerably more thought. My wife and I spent five years on the Tokyo cocktail circuit – a very lively one – where attendances averaged well over 50 and involved a minimum of a dozen different nationalities, often more.
Another basic problem was how many people to invite. Even among the British and American communities; with which we were chiefly involved, it was likely
that there would be half a dozen cocktail parries held every night. Consequently one counted on an acceptance rate of one in three and invited 150. If you were unlucky enough to hit a day when for some reason there were few parties, you might get landed with 100 guests or more – this happened to us on more than one occasion. The problem was further complicated by the fact that Japanese tend not to answer the RSVP – but they usually turn up. Furthermore most Japanese executives do not bring their wives, although some do! One just had to play the averages.
Some nationalities thrive in the cocktail party atmosphere and others do not. Russians, for instance, like drinking sitting down, especially as they devote a considerable amount of time to it. Chinese, too – used to mam-moth dinners seated at banquet tables – are less at ease shuffling round from group to group of noisy strangers. Americans, with their mobile nature and easy social manners, excel in such a kaleidoscopic ambience. Australians and Canadians, used to formulating strategies for meeting new arrivals, have no difficulty in integrating themselves with circle after circle and conversation always comes easily to them. The British and the French – past masters at small talk – are also practised cocktailers. Yet the very issue of small talk poses a substantial problem for some other nationalities. Germans simply do not believe in it, Finns and Japanese are frightened to death by it, Swedes usually dry up after about 10 minutes. Russians and Germans – more than willing to have long, soul-searching conversations with close friends – see no point in trotting out trivialities and platitudes for two hours to a complete stranger. Swedes – fluent in English and happy to talk about their job and technical matters – find little to say in addition and often admit they become boring after the first half-hour. Finns, unused to chatter, actually buy booklets on small talk (one recently published in Helsinki was a great success).