When Worlds Collide (Cultural Reflections)


Recently I wrote about visiting the bustling, exciting city of Amsterdam; I also wrote about enjoying the cafe culture throughout The Netherlands (and much of Europe) when the weather gets nice.

Today I’m going to share another reflection from that trip that references both of these posts. This isn’t about right or wrong; this is an observation about cultural differences, about how we can approach the same thing from two different perspectives.

It was mid-afternoon and we stopped by a neighborhood restaurant/cafe along one of the canals between the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House. My parents needed to get out of the sun and really sit and rest, so we among the few who chose to eat inside. All of the outdoor cafe tables were full of tourists and locals alike, soaking up the sun and enjoying a cool drink or snack.

After doing some informal field research, I have to tell it like I see it: Americans don’t do ‘cafe culture’ all that well. Not even when they think they are. Some get close, but few ever nail this important activity.

How do I know? It’s all in the mindset. When a European sits down at a table, the understanding (on behalf of both the customer and the proprietor) is that the table belongs to the customer for as long as they wish to be there. The proprietor will occasionally wander by the tables, but gives the customers plenty of time to sit and chat before coming to take a drink order. The same goes for taking food orders; there is no rush, just the assumption that you’re there to enjoy a leisurely respite.

Some of the small groups (mainly Americans) we observed sat down and immediately started looking around for the waiter to take their order. As soon as the drinks were delivered, they wanted to order their food. Meanwhile, their European counterparts were just beginning to relax and settle in for a nice stay. As soon as the meal was over, the heads started swiveling around for the waiter: where was the check? Some even made comments to each other along the lines of ‘what kind of service is this?’ or ‘what is taking the waiter so long? Can’t he see we’re done?’

Well, yes, he can. He’s been raised to believe hovering nearby is rude and negatively impacts your enjoyment. And he doesn’t automatically assume you want to rush off. But I think we as Americans often do. We tend to see meals or snacks as something we need to do in between the highlights of our day.

Oh sure, we want to enjoy good food, pleasant company and scintillating (or easygoing) conversation. But within our culture we value efficiency and prompt service. Someone raised in a true ‘cafe culture’ doesn’t think in those terms. They think of the break for lunch or a mid-afternoon snack as one of the highlights of the day, something to be savored and enjoyed. When they visit the US, they find the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) prompting of the wait staff to order, eat and move on extremely disconcerting.

Of course there are differences in how wait staff are paid, whether they view waiting on tables as a lifelong or short-term profession, and so on. These details tend to reinforce how various cultures view mealtimes in restaurants.

There is no one ‘right’ way, only different cultural approaches. So when you’re in a culture other than your own, take a look around and observe how they do things. It not only makes for interesting comparison, but also will assist you in making the transition more smoothly.


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