Wednesday, September 19

Coffee, Tea, or Me? A question of cross-cultural relations

Anyone who follows the Dove Sono (Where am I) column in my blog will know that I'm in the USA, taking in some of the cultural differences, and standing agape at the many similarities in political campaigns, and of course, the notable differences (and in both cases, for better or for worse).  On the cultural side, it feels real good to be able to glide into a lane, glide along it for miles upon miles, and not have to worry about staking my claim, vying for position, or being squeezed out at a traffic light -- although in both countries texting and cellphone use is fairly even.  I still feel more safe on Michigan roads, however, due to the fact that: a) they're wider, offering more wiggle room, b) they have shoulders in case you need to make a mad dash somewhere else and c) we're still going at a slightly less speedy clip and there are the men in blue to enforce it.  But, you get my drift.
After numerous trips to the U.S. and with an abundance of coffee bars to hang out in, I found things on that front - you know, picking up a quick coffee with a colleague - was essentially just like in Italy.   Well, okay, albeit for the super-sized drinks and an overabundance of calories contained therein and the Henry Ford approach of ordering and receiving down the line one's potables...
picture from Being Latino
click for a lively debate
on who pays when
I recall when first coming to Italy on business as a (very) young woman, how horrified I was to find that, at coffee breaks and business lunches alike, the guy at the table would very courteously pick up the tab.  I was stunned to think that it might appear as if we had been on a date; In my book it both unleveled the playing field and put the gals into play.  Although it took some time, I did finally get used to the practice, but in extreme situations in which I truly wanted to generously offer a meal, or thank someone for their time over coffee, I took to insisting that my company was owned by men, so...Please don't get offended, a man is ultimately picking up the bill...On many levels, my generosity was most likely an insult to my guest, but for 'working gal' me, it was something that I felt was the right thing to do at the time.
Which brings me to the USA.  I always worked for and with Italians when I was there, and, being quite junior, it was only natural that the guy in the group most often sprung for coffee or lunch or dinner even.  As I gained in seniority, suddenly I realized that I should pay the piper.  But then, Starbucks came into the fore; and a new etiquette seemed to arise that left a lot of women bewildered.  Arranging quick meetings in these cafés, the American man would rush in, grab his very own cappuccino or apple cider, sit down and start in.  Embarrassed that no one asked me what I wanted before heading for the cashier, I would migrate up to the counter, all on my own, and order for my little ol' self.  Not only did I have to pay for my order, I was unable to offer any sort of generosity to my business contact.  I felt like Snow White calling a meeting and all the dwarfs showing up with their lunch pails, leaving her to fetch something out of the woods for herself.
In the U.S., when it comes down to business, I've not come across someone ever even feigning to want to pay for the other (and at $5.27 a cup, I can see why that is).  Time and again, it jars my sense of chivalry, while at the same time, opening up a world of feminist rights and what those struggles now boil down to; each person treated equally--even in a coffee shop.  And yet, after decades in Europe, I now found it a bit disturbing.  I mean, in Japan, your prospects may shower you with gifts, in Turkey they pull out all manner of teas and silver platters lined with cigarettes.  And in the U.S., we can't manage a chai tea with soy?  Maybe it's because I am a woman after all.  With all the options at my disposal, when a guy thinks I may start in ordering a decaf light cream latte, no whipped cream, tall cup with cinnamon have reached the accurate conclusion that some things are better left alone.

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