Yesterday, a lady we will call Katherine contacted me, flustered, telling me the Japanese restaurant where she had lunch could truly benefit from my global coaching and giving me its name and contact information.
In her words, she just had the worst dining experience she’d ever had, mainly due to the lack of understanding of the U.S. culture from the tenant of that restaurant. In her view, she felt that anyone operating a business in the U.S. should be made aware of the cultural demands of the patrons.
What happened is the following: Katherine invited Maria, a colleague, to lunch to discuss work issues. They decided to go for sushi at a small Japanese restaurant conveniently located near their office. They were early to arrive and were the first customers in the restaurant. The server, who also appeared to be the owner, showed them to a tiny little table far away from the bay window.
Katherine was not happy with that selection and motioned toward a larger table near the window. The owner told her that particular table was reserved for larger groups and that the little table would be fine. Katherine and Maria were not thrilled by that answer, but they decided to make do and sit down.
Ten minutes later, two gentlemen walked into the restaurant. And while the space was still empty, with the exception of Katherine’s table, the owner placed the guys next to the ladies. In their mind, there was absolutely no logic to the owner’s decision: why would she cram people on top of one another and jeopardize their sense of privacy when so many other tables were open?
Katherine, Maria, and the two gentlemen looked at one another in an embarrassed fashion, and the two gentlemen decided to leave. As the restaurant started filling up, the owner kept repeating the process, piling people next to one another without any sense for the need of U.S. nationals’ privacy.
Because they were so close to their neighbors, Katherine commented to me that the lunch was not conducive to open up on some sensitive work-related topics; therefore, nothing was accomplished. They kept making small talk, uncomfortable, throughout lunch while the couple next to them kept on looking at them awkwardly, as if to assess if they were eavesdropping on their conversation.
It goes without saying that Katherine’s experience is duly rooted in the way cultures perceive space, individualism, what activities are conducted at the dinner table, eaves dropping and of course the enduring and difficult concept of privacy.
To a Japanese person who is used to paying a hefty price for commercial space in Tokyo, the goal of a restaurant is to maximize traffic and accommodate everyone who comes in. As such, a group of two deserves a table for two regardless of who came first.
In the U.S. people are used to making their own choices, especially as customers. If the table isn’t good enough, a customer feels entitled to ask for a better table. In Japan people seek harmony within the group, and questioning the owner’s choice on her own ground is considered rude at best.
What is acceptable to do over lunch:
In most cultures business isn’t discussed at the dinner table. The time people spend together eating is sacred and reserved for personal conversation, political views or comments on world events. It’s considered poor taste to go to a restaurant to talk shop. The Japanese owner probably didn’t realize the ladies were there to discuss work-related matters.
Privacy is a word I have never managed to translate accurately in any of the languages I speak. In French, Spanish,Portuguese, or German, privacy comes out as “intimacy,” which is much more related to someone’s private life rather than the need to have some space between people. With the exception of a few, most countries are struggling for space, especially in urban settings. Requesting privacy is thus a concept that is seldom understood by anyone who didn’t grow up in the U.S.
In countries where space is limited, people have been taught that you never eavesdrop on your neighbor’s conversation. And if you do anyway, you pretend that you aren’t. People have learned to entirely ignore one another even though if they’re forced to be in such close proximity.
This said, now that those differences have been acknowledged and the Japanese owner could be cleared of being an uncooperative tenant who didn’t care about the experience of her diners, I’d like to add that there’s more to dining than the food.
When you decide to go for ethnic food, please remember to bring your global mindset with you to realize there’s more to the experience than just the taste of something exotic. There is the experience per sé, where the expected becomes the unexpected and your routine is transformed into an adventure.
When things are handled differently, don’t get upset or bothered. Ask yourself, “I wonder why the owner/server is showing me that small table and cramming us on top of one another?” By engaging your mind, you’ll enrich your journey and venture further into globalism and hopefully find satisfaction in having had a lunch that took you off your beaten path.