Hospitality is pretty important in cross cultural spaces, but the “rules” of the game are not always the same in every place with every person. It’s important to learn about hospitality and how it works. Business and social relationships can suffer when hospitality isn’t understood and appropriately practiced.
Once, I was on a 4 hour train ride once in a 6 seat compartment with five other persons, a family of 3 opposite me, and two individuals one on each side of me. Among the five people, 3 different languages were spoken. For me at least, this was a cross cultural space. I wanted to live intentionally and learn and interact appropriately, or as the experts say, be an effective “participant observer”. At about 6 p.m. the family pulled out three metal containers, opened them and placed them on the small table between the seats. Then the father distributed forks and napkins to each of us, and then he poured tea into our plastic cups. Then the father broke some bread and gave each of us a large piece. The expectation was that we would each share in their meal. This family had intentionally brought extra food in order to share with us. One individual sitting to my right refused their offer, but eventually even she could not resist the temptation to try a little of the fresh bread. The other individual to my left, upon seeing the spread laid out before us, reached into her luggage and pulled out her own container of local homemade food. She set her contribution on the table for all to enjoy. I nibbled a little bit at the offerings, ate some bread, drank my tea and thought, “this is real hospitality– sharing with strangers, befriending others by sharing a meal even while in transit on an electric train.” I wish that I had known about this “rule” so that I could have purchased some fruit or something to share on the ride. One way for me to have spoken their hospitality language would have been for me to share some food with them at meal time. By accepting their hospitality, I hope that I communicated that I valued them and their kindness to me. Next time, I’ll bring some food to share, even if it means a little extra preparation for the train ride.
Here are a few observations from this experience worth noting:
1. Sometimes our first reaction to something unexpected or different is outright rejection. Maybe we prefer the sterile pre-fab-one-per-person meal offering on the airlines to the arrangement I just described on that electric train. What about you? Can you learn to suspend judgment as a participant observer in cross cultural spaces?
2. Usually in cross cultural spaces, it’s better first to observe the differences and try to understand the differences and the worldview behind the differences first, and only then to label them as right or wrong, good or bad. Living intentionally in those spaces means that eventually we will choose to appreciate and even embrace, and at the same time avoid or even reject some of the different ideas and practices. But initially, much of the time, we do well just to observe and learn. That’s kind of what I was trying to do.
3. In a business or negotiating situation, understanding how hospitality works can mean the difference between a successful meeting or one that ends with considerable misunderstanding, and perhaps kills the business relationship. When we do hospitality “correctly” in cross cultural spaces, we build trust. When we don’t, we may lose credibility, that takes a long time to rebuild.
4. In some cultures, food is always to be shared with others and refusal to share what one has with others, even on a train ride or in a semi-public place, suggests a greedy, hoarding kind of mentality. Hospitality is really a way of life, more than a planned event.