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When my wife and I lived in China, almost ten years ago, a friend of ours invited us to her home. Her family was very welcoming. They brought out some snacks, and her father, who didn’t speak any English, offered us some green tea. We accepted. After our cups were empty, he came back and offered us some more. We accepted again. After we drank the second cup, he offered again, but we politely declined. He poured some more nonetheless … and did again after we finished that cup.
Finally, we said to our friend, “Can you please tell your father that we really don’t want any more tea?”
“If you don’t want any more, then why do you keep drinking it?” she asked in response.
This cultural confusion highlights some important realizations. For example: different places have different customs about politeness. It is rude in many Western countries not to finish a drink (or meal) when you visit someone, but in China it is acceptable, if not normal. Secondly, it is polite in Eastern countries to refuse an offering of food or drink a few times before accepting—hence the reason for the confusion. We thought we were being polite by finishing the copious amounts of tea; the father thought we were being polite by declining the refills.
There are virtues to the various ways of offering and receiving in the diverse cultures of the world.
In the above example, typical of some Eastern cultures, it is considered good etiquette to refuse something that you are offered. The number of times a person should refuse varies from country to country. People tell me that in China, you should refuse three times. In Iran, it is supposedly five. To the Westerner this seems confusing—because in Western countries, ‘no’ means no and ‘yes’ means yes. If you want something, you accept, and if you don’t want it, you decline. However, if we look a bit deeper at it, we can find certain virtues in each cultural approach to hospitality. (Of course, many other ways of offering and accepting exist, but we will just focus on these two ways, which can be generalized as ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’.)
What is common in both approaches is the initial offering. In eastern culture, this offering is then followed by a series of refusals and further offerings:
“Would you like some tea?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Please, have some.”
“No, thank you.”
“Ok, if it’s no trouble.”
This encounter shows two spiritual virtues. One is the consideration or courtesy of the guest. The guest doesn’t want to impose on the host. The guest considers the time, effort and resources the host needs to offer something. The second thing is that the host exhibits generosity by continuing to offer something.
The Baha'i teachings describe these virtues as highly meritorious:
We, verily, have chosen courtesy, and made it the true mark of such as are nigh unto Him. Courtesy, is, in truth, a raiment which fitteth all men, whether young or old. – Baha’u’llah, The Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, p. 20.
Now, the western method of hospitality is quite different and may look something like this:
“Would you like some tea?”
“Sure, thanks.” Or “No, thanks!”
That’s a very short, sweet and to-the-point response—but to the Easterner it may seem abrupt or even rude. However, here we find other virtues.
The guest is sincere and open about his or her wish to accept or reject the offer. Culturally, the host has complete trust that the guest will be open and tell the truth. The guest also has trust that the host is sincere in his offer and is not just being polite, which makes it perfectly acceptable for him or her to accept the first time. Hence, the host is trustworthy. These virtues are also very important in Baha'i life:
The purpose of the one true God in manifesting Himself is to summon all mankind to truthfulness and sincerity … - Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 299.
Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 37.
So which approach is better? Perhaps neither, for Baha’u’llah says we need both types of virtues: “Say: Let truthfulness and courtesy be your adorning.” - Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 305.
We can see that despite our different cultural approaches to giving and receiving, there are virtues in each approach. The main thing to remember in intercultural exchange is that we try to see the world from other people’s perspectives, and not impose our own cultural expectations on them. If we do, we will only be frustrated and insulted. Instead we need a deep sense of openness, empathy and understanding, so that we can live in harmony with others.
In this age of globalization, cross-cultural communication has become a vital skill. It is important that we learn to navigate our way through cultural exchanges so that we can avoid misunderstandings. These kinds of cross-cultural meetings provide an opportunity to learn varying approaches to life, so that we can utilize them in different circumstances. They also give us all an opportunity to recognize and realize the essential Baha'i ideal of unity in diversity.