Food Culture: What HOW You Eat Can Tell You About Culture

Do you eat your dinner at the dining table, or do you eat sitting crosslegged on the floor?

Do you share a communal dish of food, or does everyone have an individual plate?

What utensils do you use – a fork, spoon, and knife; chopsticks; your hands?

With whom do you eat? Family, friends, with only your own gender?

The answers to these questions are part of your food culture – and to a larger extent, your culture as a whole. 

On the surface, you see only the limbs of the baobab – the cultural norms – but the details of your food culture can tell you something deeper about the roots (i.e. your cultural values).

The Presentation: Food Plating

Another aspect of food culture is the amount of care put into food presentation.

One study delved into the differences between American, Italian, and Japanese food plating preferences.

Titled, “Looks Good Enough to Eat: How Food Plating Preferences Differ Across Cultures and Continents,” the study found that Japanese participants prefer more formally arranged plates, while Italians and Americans prefer more casually presented food.

The researchers concluded that this springs from the respective cultures’ individualist versus collectivist natures.

The Japanese are a collectivist culture, so formality and identical presentation may have roots in the Eastern collectivist tradition.

Italians and Americans are individualist Western cultures. Self-autonomy and informality, even in how one’s own plate is presented, may be rooted in this mindset.

The study also noted the fullness/emptiness of the plated food.

The Japanese and Americans’ plates were relatively empty, while the Italians preferred very full plates.

The researchers concluded that the preference for empty plates might be related to the Japanese and American ideal of open space.

How, When, Why, With Whom?

Food norms can tell you a lot about a culture, so when you’re trying to understand/learn a culture, consider these norms to understand the culture’s deeper values

Practice this with your favorite culture – or even your own.

Ask:

  • How often do you eat? How long do you take to eat? 

Many Mediterranean countries, for instance, spend hours dining each day, as sharing food is considered an important social event.

  • When do you eat?

The Spanish, for instance, eat dinner between 9 PM and midnight, and it’s a much lighter meal than lunch. This is historically linked to their afternoon siesta and being geographically located in the wrong time zone.

  • Why do you eat?

Some cultures tend to eat only for sustenance while others take more pleasure in eating.

  • With whom do you eat?

While eating is a family affair for most countries, for others this is not the case.

Answering these questions about food culture will help you understand that culture or learn something new. It will help you connect the dots between a culture’s norms and its values.

German vs. Japanese Nose: Scent Preferences = Food Preferences

Whether you like the smell of wintergreen or marzipan, cheese or fresh cut grass, lemon or borscht, your scent preferences are likely impacted by your culture.

Last week, we talked about how that which surrounds us often influences our favored scents.

It may be onions prompting attraction, cow manure implying success, or body odor indicating the spirit.

Whatever the case, our noses seem to know our culture.

First-World Cultures

Many of the scent preferences and concepts we discussed last week surrounded second- or third-world cultures, so we might expect the norms and preferences to differ more from those of first-world cultures than two first-world cultures would from each other.

But what happens when we compare the scent preferences of the first-world? Are they similar? Do first-world cultures like the same scents?

The short answer is no.

Of course, these are general claims; scent preferences differ depending on personal tastes.

But, generally…

Americans like the smell of wintergreen; the British don’t.

Germans like the smell of marzipan; the Japanese don’t.

The intrigue regarding these cultural differences in scent preferences led to a study that dove right into these comparisons. This is what it found.

Japan vs. Germany

Japanese researcher, Saho Ayabe-Kanamura, explored Japan and Germany’s differences in scent preferences and perception of everyday odors.

germanjapanesechart.jpg

As you can see in the chart, the study found that participants preferred fragrances of food odors that they thought most edible. They tended to rate these edible odors higher.

This is not unusual. We are what we eat. And the food we consume is often a deeply acquired part of primary socialization.

Slimy Snails

One example of this: I had dinner with an American senior manager at a French restaurant.

We decided to dive into French dining culture headfirst, and we ordered escargot as an appetizer.

I asked my American colleague: “So how does it taste?”

He answered: “For you, these are escargot. For me, they will stay what they have always been: slimy snails.”

Americans will probably always taste slimy snails when chewing on escargot, and this is due to their primary socialization.

The same goes with scent. Once a preference is set, it’s not very adaptable.

Respect Culture: How to Respond to Norms that Make You Uncomfortable

What does respect mean to you?

In the face of disagreement, in the face of, perhaps, discomfort or even anger, what does it mean to respect someone with whom you do not share values or norms?

An example:

You’re Japanese, and you’ve moved to Spain. The Spanish are a warm, open and friendly culture. A kiss on both cheeks is a common greeting, whether you’re a friend or a stranger being met for the first time.

This social norm is not only one you’re not used to; it’s one that makes you incredibly uncomfortable.

What do you do?

Discomfort

I actually know a Japanese woman who struggled with this exact scenario.

She was the wife of a diplomat who had recently transferred to Spain. I met her at a language school.

Not only did she grow up in a culture that is as far removed from Spain as it possibly can be, she was also born to an aristocratic family, so her upbringing was even more disciplined than most. From childhood, she had been taught that public spaces and situations were not the place for physical human contact.

Remember: the Japanese greeting is a bow. A handshake is even too intimate. So, imagine then transitioning into a country in which men and women engage in this public display of affectionate greeting.

A kiss on both cheeks seemed too much for her to bear.

Tolerate, Comply and/or Explain

According to LQ Williams of Owlcation:

“Tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others… and the recognition of the value of differences without judgement.”

Tolerance, in essence, is respecting diversity, the world over. Despite feeling uncomfortable with certain cultural norms, you can still demonstrate your tolerance and respect for the culture by complying with other cultural behaviors.

In my Japanese friend’s case, she was taking this step: she was actively trying to learn the language.

Lastly, if you find yourself between a rock and a hard place – that is, between an attempt to integrate into the culture and your discomfort with some of this culture’s social norms and values – then explaining yourself goes a long way.

As Core Languages notes: “Often, just trying to be culturally sensitive is appreciated. Even if you don’t execute well, you’ve taken the time to learn about another and invested in a relationship.”

Who knows – maybe somewhere down the road, you’ll become comfortable with those norms that were initially a roadblock for you, just like my Japanese friend did.

Instead of only accepting the norm, she chose to overcome her deep level of physical discomfort and adapt.

These are some of the battles you may face when living and working in a foreign country. It’s up to you where you draw the line.

But know that in some cases, if you draw the line too close to your own cultural comfort, you may be impeding yourself from successful cross cultural integration.