Eat at home before going to a Dutch home.
It is 16:00 hours and I am at my future in-laws house having tea and two cookies. The conversation is flowing and we are getting along well. It is 18:00 hours and we are still having tea. I know this because I am hungry and I have just looked at the clock. My boyfriend and I stay until 19: 22 hours. I remember this because I was very hungry and looking at the time the whole time expecting to be offered dinner. In the car, I turn to my boyfriend and ask why we were not offered dinner. It is only common courtesy and good manners to do so, I think. Where I come from you are offered a full meal the minute you walk into someone’s house. You cannot leave on an empty stomach. Forbidden! “We were not invited for dinner, my boyfriend explains. A proper Dutch family will not serve you food unless they specifically invited you for that”, he says matter of factly. Note to self; eat at home before going to a Dutch home.
Cultures and protocol are different in different parts of the world. The following illustrates how it works in most if not all black African cultures when it comes to guests and visitors. I will specifically refer to the cultures I am most familiar with, that is, Tanzanian, Botswana, Zambian and Zimbabwean culture because I have lived in these countries but I am pretty sure this applies to the rest of Black Africa. In summary,the visitors are warmly greeted at the door then led into the sitting room. The drinks are offered and conversation ensues. Shortly a warm meal is served.The time of the visit is not a factor,whether someone comes at daybreak,midday or midnight, the same protocol ensues. I will give an example with fictitious persons for clarity’s sake;
How it is done in Africa ( countries specified)
Host: Good afternoon Bob and Stella,how are you? Don’t just stand there come in,its cold outside, you will catch pneumonia”. (always exaggerations in our culture, its possible it was not cold at all).
Visitors: “Good afternoon Tom, we are well. Don’t worry about us we will be okay. May we come in?”, they will ask politely despite being already invited in.
The parties will go into the house and Stella will, as usual, comment about what a lovely home Tom has. They will meet Julia in the sitting room and Stella will state her admiration for Julia’s dress. The two women will hug. Julia will immediately serve the drinks. The visitors cannot or should not refuse an offer of drinks. This is tantamount to accusing the hosts of having poisoned,bewitched or in any way tampered with the drinks. It is an indication that you do not trust the hosts. After a while (within an hour), food is offered. The following is the protocol;
Julia: ” Let me go and get the food. It’s time to eat. I have prepared a big meal. We don’t want you to go home hungry”. (Note: there is always food for visitors in an African home, expected or unexpected and it is always enough)
Stella: “No thank you. We have already eaten (they haven’t and they knew they would eat at Tom’s). Please don’t go out of your way. We didn’t come here for food”. This part requires outstanding skills in acting and all Africans have mastered this act.
Julia will go on insisting that their visitors eat and playfully emotionally blackmail them by claiming to be insulted. This usually goes on for one minute. In remote African villages it can take anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes to convince your visitors to eat.
Finally Stella will give in and insist on helping to set the table and serve the food . This will be met with a strong refusal by Julia and Stella will politely accept and wait for the meal. Meanwhile, the men are discussing football and pretending to be oblivious to what is happening. Of course it is only protocol, both parties knew there would be an offer of food, refusal of food, negotiation, compromise and agreement to eat eventually. As a matter of fact, Bob and Stella came on empty stomachs. Why do they go through this whole charade, you ask? For the simple reason that it is considered greedy and presumptuous to readily accept an offer of food.
How it is done in the Netherlands.
First and foremost there has to be an invitation to a person’s house with a set and uncompromising time. You do not come earlier or later. Being early is a sign of inconsideration and being late a sign of disrespect. You arrive at the house and you are warmly greeted and served tea, coffee, beer or wine. If you are lucky your drinks will be accompanied by cookies, chips or peanuts. However, it is advised not to expect this. You will spend hours (can be 8 hours) having good conversations and laughter. I am not exaggerating. I will never forget the day I arrived at a friend’s place at 12:00 hours, left at 18: 00 hours and left with a severe rumbling tummy and the taste of tea and wine. Always, always eat before you leave home!
After Dinner Burping (Belching)
This is an interesting phenomena and can be a polar opposite in behavioural expectations in cultures. In African villages it is a sign of appreciation if men burp and rub their tummies immediately after eating a meal. A Zambian colleague of mine told me that in her family the men would burp and expose their shiny protruding tummies as evidence of having thoroughly enjoyed the food. The women do not usually sit with the men when eating so they would either be watching from the sidelines or in the process of clearing plates when this unuttered compliment is given. The woman or women who prepared the meal will giggle and shyly accept the compliment. They will clear the plates and go back to the kitchen glowing. Take note that YOU MUST FINISH THE FOOD served. It is the ultimate insult and a sign of pure disdain if you do not clear your plate.
I happen to know that Africa is not alone in this social act. Research shows that in parts of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, India and China it is considered polite to burp following a meal. Just like in certain African cultures, it is a sign of appreciation for the hospitality.
The Western World is different. Need I mention how reprehensible burping in public is regarded in the West. Just ask the prim and proper English. Quite uncouth. It may be likened to farting in public. Of course burping is a naturally occurring function of the human body but in this society it considered bad manners and socially inappropriate.
The birthday lady hungrily opens the wrapped gifts and thanks and kisses the gift givers. This happens practically by the doorway! She then piles up the opened gifts on a table or a corner in plain sight of all the guests. How greedy and selfish!, I think. People hardly have their foot through the door and she is unwrapping their gifts with greedy pleasure. Little did I know. This is my first experience of a birthday party in the Netherlands.
Scenario in the Netherlands
The norm in the Netherlands is to open gifts the second you are presented with them. It is also important to display the gifts for all to see and admire. This norm pertains to all celebrations, be it an anniversary, wedding, graduation or housewarming event. The thought behind this is that personal appreciation is immediately shown to the gift giver. It is done out of politeness . The act of displaying the gifts in full view of everyone shows how special and important you view these gifts and are sharing the joy they bring with everyone. It is also a bonus display of thanks to the gift giver.
Scenario in Africa (black Africa)
Firstly, you do not or should not expect to get a gift! No, you were raised better than to expect free lunches, so to speak. The fact that the guests are there to attend your celebration is gift enough. They have come for you. What more do you want? However, in the event that you are given a gift, the right reaction would be to politely thank the giver and take the unopened gift to a back room or a corner out of sight of the of the other guests. The other guests need (should) not see the gift or if they happen to see the gift it would ordinarily be in its package. The gifts may be opened later when the party is nearing its end or the next day exclusive of the gift giver. It is for this reason that it is best to attach a card with your gift. The card would indicate whom the gift is from. It is up to the giver to choose to remain unanimous. The reason behind this is that our culture is based on humility. Self restraint from excessive vanity is the norm. It is seen as vain and shallow to expect favours or gifts and outwardly display such. It is embarrassing and shameful to proudly showcase your possessions. This would mar your decency, virtue and honour. Our culture focuses on the individual worth of a person and not on physical belongings.
My first thought when I reflect on what I have just written above is, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” I don’t remember where I got wind of this saying but it makes sense. It is funny how that which is considered acceptable and a compliment in one’s culture is disrespectful and ill-mannered in another. What is even funnier is that both sides have perfectly reasonable, tangible and logical explanations for the acts. My advice is, when in Rome act like the Romans. In simple words, adapt.You need not fully adopt but by all means adapt if you want to fit in and not disrespect anyone. Otherwise you suffer or make a fool of yourself.