Years ago, I was sitting at the table of an elderly German woman eating lunch with a few friends. She spoke about as much English as I speak German – none. Her rural home was about 400 years old and she looked as if she’d been living it for half that time.
We passed the plates of food around the table family style. When the meat stew came to me, I helped myself to a nice size portion as I was a hungry 20-something year-old guy at the time. Immediately, our host rose from her chair, came over to my plate and starting telling me something – dare I say “Yelling at me”. She then proceeded to take the meat from my plate and placed it on hers! I guess she wanted the big piece.
I was then offered another helping of the stew. Nervously, I served myself a smaller portion, still reeling from what just happened.
What had I done to excite the ire of our host?
As we started eating, my German friend leaned over with a smile on his face. “You served yourself the rabbit’s head. She thought you’d like a different piece instead.”
Now I understand. She was helping me, not seeking to embarrass me. My host was watching out for me – the ignorant American.
In cross-cultural situations, there are going to be awkward times. That is to be expected. But if we enter in with a humble attitude, more often than not, our friends will guide us. They will kindly let us know when we’ve done something wrong. That we don’t need to shake hands, or we should take off our shoes, or we should eat this way or that. There are hundreds of little daily mannerisms which differ from culture to culture.
Learning comes when we enter in and make mistakes. Of course, sometimes, we’re going to serve ourselves the rabbit’s head. But that’s OK. Next time, just take the small pieces of meat!
P.S. Apparently, some people think the head is the best part of the rabbit! Maybe I’m missing out.