Cultural differences

Hosting an afternoon event

1:04 PM


In the West, when you have small children, chances are you've been hanging out with peers in what is commonly known as a playgroup. These are informal gathering of mothers who come together with their children, be it at a park, or in someone's home. In organized playgroups, the ladies take turn hosting the event, which usually takes place in the afternoon. The children play together while the moms catch up over tea. This is a very good system to beat the isolation new moms feel in the begining. In India I have been hanging with expats for that kind of events, as my Indian friends don't see it the same way.

In Inida it seems the very concept of hosting child centric weekly event in one's circle is a relatively unknown concept. However, India has introduced me to the concept of kitty parties, which more or less work on the same principle, with the distinction that the ladies in the kitty end up paying the hostess a fixed sum...only to see that sum returned to them when they host the even themselves. Kitties do not necessarily mean kids will be around. My kitty group does involve kids, but that is not a norm. As you can see, I belong to differnt social circles, and with each groups come some cultural differences. Both my kitty group and the expat playgroup meet in the afternoon, for what can be considered an afternoon tea. But the way it is hosted and what is served varies considerably in the West and in India. This post is not meant to pit one hosting style against the other. I just want to explain the cultural differences at play in an informative way.

At a western style event, food is always served from the start. This is an invariable constant in the art of hosting where I come from, it doesn't matter if it is a lunch, dinner, afternoon tea or other party...food is the main event. People sit down and talk animatedly while eating and drinking. In India, food is served at the end of an event, the talking and drinking is done before any food appear, and usually when the food appear, you know the gathering is reaching an end, and guests will leave shortly after finishing their plate.

In India, a tea snack should be substantial, especially at an even like a kitty party or gathering of several people. By European standards, it is looking more like a meal in itself than an actual snack. and it is always cooked food, that is savoury rather than sweet, served hot, sweets are served as a dessert...yes even at an afternoon tea. Indians usually eat dinner much later than people in the West, so tea time has to tide you over for longer. Westerners are more likely to serve light snacks along with tea. It is often something as simple as a sponge cake, and sliced fruit, or a plate of cookies.

In the West, people usually set the table nicely with everything before the guests arrive, as it is rude to receive people with nothing ready. The hostess is not supposed to disappear in the kitchen, she is to among her guests getting the conversation going. In India serving food that is pipping hot and shows the skills of the hostess seem to matter far more, and the hostess usually excuse herself and go finish to prep her meal while the guests continue chatting without her (remember in India the food is served at the end of a gathering). Showing off your culinary skills for your guest is less of a thing in Europe, so even if you can't bake a cake to save your life, it is perfectly acceptable to get something bought from a store, your guest are more likely to feel upset if you are constantly disappearing in the kitchen instead of sitting down with them.

In India, guests often play a polite game of abstaining from eating until the hostess asked them at least once or twice to dig in, and it is also the hostess job to keep an eye for empty plates to refill without the guests asking. Guests that are usually done eating need to insist that they are full but reassure the hostess the food was delicious. In a western gathering the hostess will at the most ask you once to help yourself of cake, and if you decline will not insist, just assume you are fine and will serve yourself once ready. Westerners usually start helping themselves of food as soon as everybody is seated at the table, including the hostess. By European standard, pushing food on your guests is considered rude, a hostess will at the most ask their guests if they are up for a second serving of something during a bigger meal, but not at a tea party.

I have been navigating in both culture for quite a while. A few of my Indian friends told me that the western way of serving food at the start was confusing to them, as it eliminated the social cue that points guests to the door. Because with the meal being the main event, how does one know when it is appropriate and polite to leave. At a playgroup/afternoon tea, it is usually when the conversation starts to die down, and the food on the table is closed to finish. At a lunch or dinner event, this is after the coffee has been served and finished. We always finish a big meal with a warm beverage in Europe. But expect a dinner party to last 2-3 hours, we take a lot of time to eat, and by the time dessert has been served the conversation runs out of steam and the hostess usually offers the coffee. Another cue for an afternoon event is the time. We usually eat dinner by 7 or 8 pm, so an afternoon tea usually end no later than 6 as a result.

What are the hosting style differences that you had the most difficulties adjusting to?



11 comments

  1. Beatrix1:59 PM

    I wonder if since more Indians are going out to eat at restaurants as entertainment if the 'eat & leave' feature of Indian culture will change to a more western style of lingering over coffee?
    My husband & I host a lot of dinner parties at our home. I do all the cooking (although my husband is quite a good cook also). Over the years we have developed our own 'blended version' of dinner service. I had a hard time getting used to serving 'warm' food instead of 'piping hot' food as we prefer in western cultures. My mistake. I finally figured out that because Indians eat with their hands they do not like food served so hot.

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  2. Smriti2:30 PM

    Formal dinners (US as well as Europe)... I have traveled quiet a bit
    over the last decade as part of my work and I hated formal dinners,
    especially the ones with "place cards" to sort you out. I am a scientist
    by profession and an introvert by nature so felt really uncomfortable
    (due to latter) when seated next to people I could hardly communicate
    with. And as you mention in the post, the European dinners go on for at
    least 2-3 hrs!

    The saving grace, funnily though was the "stuff
    on my plate" (vegetarian), which over the years received all sort of
    reactions from peers, but gave me something to talk about! :-)

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  3. I hate the place card dinners type too, for the same reason you mentionned. I don't mind 2-3 hours meals at family gathering or casual friends night at home though, but because I am in the company of people I know I can have more meaningful conversations than the boring chit chat one makes with near strangers at a formal event.

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  4. I do my own blended version too by planning a dinner party or a kitty party with dishes that can sit in the kitchen and just need a few minutes to warm up before serving when we have Indian friends over. I simply hate disappearing into the kitchen and leave my guests all alone, that is the one element of Indian cultural hosting bit I just can't get adjusted to.

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  5. And I wonder the same thing about the restaurant culture changing this too, but so far I haven't seen a lot of place that even offer coffee on the menu to finish a meal over here, finishing the meal with a warm drink is a thing that is done a lot in Europe but seem to be unknown of in India. Yet I read Chinese do prefer tea with their food, and that like it is the case in Europe the warm drink is said to ease digestion.

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  6. apple3:40 PM

    I think Indian meal is heavy and spicy. To digest it, we drink lassi or just plain yogurt. In a warm country like India drinking something cool makes sense. South Indian drink filter coffee after meals, I suppose. They are the only ones who drink something like a beverage with meal. We associae beverages with snacks and not full fledge meals.
    About women not eating with men and keepint themselves confined to kitchen, those things are changing. But, still in large family gatherings with elders these things are still followed but not. I think in a mythological sense, Indian women were equated with Annapurna (the goddess of food). It is said that goddess Annapurna has a vessel which is always filled with grains and it never empties. In the same way the lady of the house cooks and nourishes the family thus spreading auspiciousness. Very deep and auspicious meaning but we took that a bit too far. I think this was the case in 1940s western society also when women wer homemakers and men were providers.

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  7. My gran am always said that drinking a warm beverage at the end of the meal helps keep the fats soluble in the stomach and ease digestion, I don't know how much of it holds true though. I have heard the same thing is believed in Chinese culture, and often tea is served along with the food rather than water.

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  8. It's funny you mention the eating late concept. Hubby said his family was always getting teased because they ate at 9 PM and his neighbors thought this was way too early to eat. So I had to laugh myself because here in the US we often eat our dinner (my family) at 5-6 PM. Many people eat around 6-7. By 9 PM we're all settled in front of the TV or getting ready for bed. But our days seem to start much earlier too.

    There's been a recent trend in the US (at least here) of having parties where your friends and their kids make the food together. So the hostess prepares the basics like baking the cupcakes or cookies and the guests decorate them after arrival as part of the party.

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  9. Same in Switzerland, we are eating dinner at 6-7 and then drink herbal tea in front of the TV or go read a book until bedtime. My neighbours are all amazed at the fact Ishita is in bed by 7.30 and that we have dinner before that.
    I think that cooking trend thing can work in US where kitchens are usually bigger. I had several American friends who had a bit of a cultural shock seeing the sizes of kitchens in Europe, ours are more compact, and it gets though to have more than two or three people in there. Of course a lot of Indian kitchen are even smaller than European ones, or planned in such a way two people in it become too much of a crowd.

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  10. apple2:05 PM

    I think many communities eat simple meal in India at dinner, some have more elaborate meals. Roti eaters have more simple meals and rice eaters more elaborate. In north india people used to eat early dinner sometimes around 7.00 pm. Not now, with the modern lifestyles. Indian meal also takes much time to make. Punjabis do eat early dinner.

    In eastern india, meals are eaten late. Bengalis are typically late eaters. In bengal, in the evening, friends gather in somebody's home on tea, samosas and puris, discussing politics, literature etc. This happens quiet regularly. Bengalis have actually made evening snacks some kind of a ritual. This pushes the dinner further.

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  11. In Mumbai people eat dinner as soon as they reach home, and because almost everybody has a long commute that is usually at 9pm and people go to bed around 10 something judging by how most of the lights in apartment gets switched off before 11pm. The commute time being so long people don't waste time in the morning trying to leave early to beat the crowd and traffic if they can. Things like precooked roti and paratha are working really well and sell in small kirana store too as a result, people simply can't do it all in such a fast paced city :-)

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