Dinner with a cultural faux pas

As we all know, when life presents learning experiences, they're often a package deal with discomfort. This happened to me while dining in a fancy restaurant with a client.

His first time in the US from China, Hao had been sent by his employer to their Los Angeles offices for three months. He hired me as his personal trainer, and I enjoyed hearing about his tourist outings and experiences living in a new country—he found the Hollywood Walk of Fame most disappointing.

We developed a good rapport during his stay, and as his return to China neared, Hao suggested we meet for a meal. He asked if I’d ever been to Mastros, a high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills. I’d heard a lot of good things about the place and was on board with the idea.

The food’s presentation, quality, and flavor all lived up to the restaurant’s reputation, and my over-stuffed belly was my only complaint. I didn’t know it, but more discomfort was in store. After declining the dessert menu, the waiter brought the check to the table, and I pulled out my wallet to contribute. With a startled expression, Hao literally jumped out of his chair and pleaded, “Please! Do not embarrass me.” Several seconds of very uncomfortable silence passed, and as Hao slowly sat back down, it was clear I’d committed a serious faux pas in his eyes.

Taken aback and confused, I apologized for upsetting him, not sure of what I’d done. Hao explained he had invited me to dinner as his guest, and he considered it an insult and disrespectful for me to make such a gesture. I’d just received a hyper-crash course in a dining cultural custom.

With the mood still tense, I explained I had not interpreted his suggestion to meet for a meal as an invitation to treat me to dinner. I also told him offering to pay for one's portion is common and customary in the US. I said sometimes people will insist back and forth on who pays, almost like a Kabuki dance. Hao was confused, asking why we would do such a thing. I couldn’t give him a logical answer, only that it’s a learned behavior in our society. He was quiet for a moment, then smiled and said, “I don’t think your custom will ever make sense to me.” I couldn’t blame him, but he now had some understanding of my behavior, as I did of his.

Though the evening had briefly but sharply gone off the rails, we put it behind us, shook hands, and wished each other the best of luck in our future endeavors.

To minimize the chances of a repeat experience, I pledge to research the customs of those from outside the US that I’ll be socializing with. I've been invited to my Turkish client’s engagement party, and in my research, I've learned that hugs are for close friends and family, and a kiss on both cheeks is welcome for acquaintances. I’ve also learned that in Indian culture, tipping one’s head slightly from side to side while talking to someone indicates full attention and understanding—observing this in my client from New Delhi makes sense now.

Has anyone else had an interaction go sideways and suffer embarrassment due to a cultural misunderstanding?

Please share so I know I’m not alone.

Sanatana

What a story! Even though it was tense and uncomfortable, you could not possibly have known that a different set of rules applied to eating out with someone from China.

Despite the awkwardness, you both learned something about each others's cultures. And now you have the wisdom to prepare yourself in the future should you have the opportunity to go to an even from another culture.

Slipstream

Great story and really good advice for not embarrassing yourself or someone else. The only experience that's even close to that for me was on my trip to Europe, I learned tipping wasn't the cool thing to do. At least at that time, it may have changed by now. Thanks for posting.

Evangel

While living in Brazil, I learned that our "okay" hand gesture meant something else in Brazilian culture. In fact, it was considered offensive and vulgar. If you'd like to know which other common American hand gestures will get you in trouble in other countries, read this: https://www.businessinsider.com/hand-gestures-offensive-countries-world-...

Well Street

It's amazing how gestures can have diametrically opposing meanings in different cultures.