Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Embarrassing expat moments

Some years ago in the pre-Euro world an English expat was buying me lunch in France.

She’d ordered a bottle of bottle of wine. As I wasn’t paying I hadn’t taken too much notice of the price but when the bill arrived she visibly paled and called the waiter over.

“You’ve charged 200francs for this wine and it was priced at ninety-something on the menu”

The waiter said that such a low price for that wine was impossible, but at her instance he went to check the menu. He gave her a menu that she examined, at which point she triumphantly exclaimed –

“Yes, there it is – 91francs!”

The waiter looked at her with that pitying expression the French reserve for Anglophones speaking of cuisine related issues

“Madame, that is the vintage – it is a [19]91”

‘Beetroot red’ doesn’t fully describe the colour of her face!

The faux pas is inevitable for expats. Sooner or later you can be sure you’re going to transgress some local custom you didn’t even know existed or shoot yourself in the foot with some ham-fisted handling of the local language etc.

Even speaking English in an English-speaking country doesn’t guarantee safety.

A friend told me of an experience he had in Melbourne having been there only 3 days. After working late he’d gone into a local Indonesian restaurant at about 10pm to order a take-away. Whilst waiting at a table he’d asked the waitress for a beer to which she’d smiled and said

“Yes, that’ll be fine thanks”
“Sir, we are a BYO restaurant”
“OK fine, I’ll have a bottle of BYO”

At this point he realised several diners at tables were laughing. One said

“Nah, you don’t understand Pommie, there’s no alcohol licence here – this is a ‘Bring Your Own’ place”.

Humiliated, exit stage left to mass public guffaws.

These are amusing tales in the re-telling though at the time they’re maybe less funny for those caught in them.

So can you do much to prepare for them? Nope!

The life of an expat is new and exciting and there’s no way you’re going to become an overnight expert in the culture you’re joining, so prepare for the odd humiliation. On the plus side though, although humour isn’t universal, laughter is.

Nothing breaks down barriers faster than a good laugh. If your error is the cause of it, well, turn it into something positive by sharing the laugh.

Not all faux pas, though, are quite so trivial and the embarrassment can be more severe.

In several countries, aperitifs are an established social custom. The timings and implications vary by country and region, but in general an invitation for an aperitif means an early evening drink and a few little snacks pre-dinner and, critically, the departure of the guests BEFORE dinner.

This is where many Anglophones become confused, because in the UK an invitation to have aperitifs at, say, 7 means that dinner will follow at roughly 8.

One family I know were invited to aperitifs at 7 and smelled delicious cooking. Having enjoyed snacks, drinks and pleasant chitchat to about 8.30, they noticed that conversation was flagging rather. To kick-start things again they innocently asked what time they were eating. Cue many red faces and the hosts’ disappearance into the kitchen. Entering to offer help, the British visitors found their hosts frantically defrosting beef burgers to try and supplement the food they had prepared just for themselves. Cue even more red faces!

Such things are part and parcel of settling into a new life and culture. Have fun!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I must be living in a parellel universe. The waiters and diners who mock and ridicule the hapless innocent who transgresses a local custom would be social monsters where I live. I find when I inadvertently commit a faux pas I am generally treated with understanding and given some slack on the "do unto others as ..." principle. I'm sorry you live in such an unpleasant world of nasty people or are you exercising writers' licence and exaggerating, over-writing, for effect? "Beetroot red’ doesn’t fully describe the colour of her face!!" Come on. We've all committed the odd, even weird, social solecism but it's not a case for terminal embarassment. What I'm saying is: your humour would be IMHO more punchy for being less SHOUTY.