December 31, 2010

Culture and Parties

new janisBy 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.

clip_image002When 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.

clip_image004This 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.

clip_image006So 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?


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I am extremely interested in what you have to say. Coming from a hispanic family, I feel the same way you do about most of the topics you discussed earlier. There are very different social climates, based on the atmosphere and area you are in.

What you said was right, everyones culture is different and everyones perception regarding the same event can be different, not everyones minds work the same and people take stuff in differntly.

This is a very well dicussed and explain the different social climates. Not everyone is the same and we need to realize that.

Great article! One of the greatest things I ever learned when I was in the Navy was that the world is full of amazing people with delightful and fascinating cultures. It has really instilled a life-long desire to experience and learn as much about other ways of doing things than what I know, and this article speaks to that perfectly. I try to bring this knowledge and my experience to my work too, so I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and musings. Thanks for sharing!

I find it very interesting how different cultures seem to interact and seem to have difference roles depending on who you are. The differences of the interactions among North Americans and numerous other cultures is vast. The social interaction among difference cultures is a lot difference. More so than I ever would have realized at first glance. Plus, the role of the host of the social gathering changes dramatically depending on the culture. The role of the host in North America is not to feed but entertain, I suppose.

I liked this article, this really showed differences between cultures. I am italian and when we get together it is the same thing, we make a lot of food along with snacks because the cliche is that italians know how to eat and cook. It is interesting to hear the Caribbean people are the same way. I've gone to parties where it was just fingered food and thought that it wasn't the same as the way my family is so maybe it has to do with ethnical background.

great article and highyl accurate. There are many different types of people and cultures, not all of them will react to situations the same. I believe many people do not realize this.

Nice post. I love it. Waiting your new posts. Thank you...

Thanks for all of the feedback, folks! You made lots of interesting points, including how cultural differences among Americans impacts this sort of thing.

I thought this was really interesting because in American culture it seems that our careers take over so much of our lives that it is always a topic of conversation. It is crazy that you could know someone for so long (10 years) and not know exactly what it is that they do, but perhaps your relationship was just deeper than that.

This is a great point on how urbanization comes into play in American culture.

When you started off with that everyday conversation about marriage and family that starts most conversations at parties it really made me think about it. In most cultures marriage and family is just an assumed part of life and therefore often a safe topic for small chitchat. Your take on the American culture and parties was great though. It's strange to think that some culture do have the same type of entree at every gathering.

I think it's really interesting to think about the fact that Americans usually only have snacks at parties because I never really thought about the truth in it before. It's obvious that Americans are more outgoing and ask more personal questions (for example, when I traveled to England, our British tour guide explained how off-putting it could be sometimes because Americans usually ask names right off-hand and Brits usually don't). We value very close social interaction more than other cultures seem to, so therefore, we don't want actual food (i.e., rice and chicken) to interrupt this interaction.

It is strange to realize the truths. I recently threw a graduation party for my sister, and we served only snacks, deserts, and appetizers. I don't have many friends that practice a different culture than mine, so I was never introduced physically to the fact that different cultures dine at social gatherings in different ways. I always knew the fact, because it was obvious, but have yet to experience the difference.

I really enjoyed reading your blog, I had never thought that the different cultures would create such a large gap between the way social gatherings are held. The urbanism seems to be extremely diverse in the social gatherings you attend. Although the convergence theory is fairly common in the social settings I find, form your post, that it does not seem to be extremely present. I also believe that this is also shown by dispersed collectivity.

as long as there is food available I don't think we should really be worried about what people are eating.

Eu adorei seu post eu tenho vindo aqui toda semana ver o que há de novo

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