By Janis Prince Inniss
So you guys are married?
How long have you been married?
Any children? How old are they? Two girls? Two boys?
Where are you from? I can hear an accent.
And he, where is he from?
Where did you guys meet?
What do you do? Where do you work?
As you attend social gatherings this holiday season, will you meet people who ask these kinds of questions? Maybe you will be asking these questions yourself. Tell me a little bit about the people with whom you’ll be “hanging” and I think I can make a reasonably good prediction about whether you’re likely to be asked such questions; I can also make a decent guess about the food you’ll be served. It’s not that I’m psychic, but culture does impact how we “hang out” with others.
There are fellow Caribbean people with whom I’ve associated for many years and have never asked such questions of each other. In fact, it was only a couple weeks ago that I learned the profession of a Caribbean woman I have known for almost 10 years. (Let’s call this woman Jean.)
It’s not that Jean and I don’t see each other often. We have many of the same friends and attend many of the same gatherings --many of which are in each other’s homes. I enjoy Jean’s company and would guess that she feels the same way about me. We’ve talked about many important issues including parenting, religion, churches, being women of a ”certain age”…personal issues, to be sure.
Yet, we rarely talk about our careers. We each know where the other works and will ask something very general like: “How is work?” “How are things at ZYX Corporation?” But typically, we don’t spend time discussing what we do. And so after all these years, it was a native born American in our midst who asked Jean, “What do you do?” I couldn’t help but be amused that after knowing Jean for so many years—and knowing quite a bit about her—I had no idea what she does professionally.
It’s not that Caribbean people don’t discuss work; we do. But we have different rules regarding such topics—deemed personal—than many North Americans do. For example, probably due to the occupational prestige accorded professors, there has been some buzz even among my Caribbean friends about my recent career change. (Read more about occupational prestige here.) And with close Caribbean friends, we talk about our careers, and lots of other highly personal things. However, Caribbean people usually don’t ask these questions—which are considered nosy—as a way of getting to know someone.
When I started graduate school, I was excited to start receiving invitations to classmates’ and professors’ homes. It was the first time I learned the term “potluck” and remember being baffled when, in response to my queries, I was told that I could bring chips and dip. Chips and dip?
I figured the host would provide the more substantial food like rice and chicken. I still remember being stunned at the first of several such events when the entire menu consisted of finger foods; it is no exaggeration to say that I experienced culture shock! I kept looking for the real food. I could not believe that a party could take place with a variety of chips, dips, crudités, nuts, desserts, and drinks! (In other words, everything but anything resembling an entree!) I would leave these events starving with the slightly upset stomach I get from noshing on these snacks. I learned though; after a few of these experiences, I realized that going to these parties was not an excuse to skip cooking; I would have dinner at home and then enjoy a few nibbles at these events.
This is exactly how not to have a party for Caribbean people. (My classmates at USC and professors were all North American.) At every party hosted by my Jamaican friends, I have been served Jerk Chicken and Rice and Peas. While there may be some other variables, those two delicious dishes have been constants. Parties hosted by other Caribbean people include dishes such as Curried Chicken, Baked Chicken, but always, always there is rice and chicken among other offerings.
Whether it’s being held at noon, four, or eight in the evening, Caribbean gatherings include heavy food. And when I’m invited to one of these, I know that I don’t need to cook and eat before attending.
So think of this as a primer for holiday gatherings. If you’re going to be among North Americans, expect finger foods and questions like the ones I included at the beginning. If you’re among (English speaking) Caribbean people, know that those questions may be off-putting and that you’ll be served rice and chicken in some form. (Note that as with any generalization, there are bound to be variations not addressed by such characterizations.)
Culture affects large and small aspects of our lives. Here, I’ve focused on only two: food and an aspect of interaction. Do you think these peculiarities of these two cultures tell us anything important about what each culture values?