So I recently got to go to Denmark. Which was, well, pretty amazing. As it always is, one of the best parts was just thinking about the differences between me and the people walking next to me down the (very well designed) streets. I could have met these people anywhere — my kindergarten classroom, a work conference call, on the dancefloor at my college dive. But instead, here we are. We speak different languages (although yes, they admittedly probably also speak mine), like different foods (ahem, the Danish food I sampled was delicious!!) and see the world through different sets of cultural lenses.
My aunt and I were sitting outside the Danish Cultural Center, in the sun, with the Kronborg Castle (of Hamlet fame) glinting just a few meters away. We’d ordered identical meals: fiske frikadelle (fishcakes) and rhubarb juice. Umm, yum. We’re eating and talking about a game she’s made up where you ask Americans really “obvious” things about Denmark and ask Danes really “obvious” things about America. We’re talking – How many states are there? Why does the flag have 13 stripes? What does NPR stand for?
Easy, right? Until you realize, I can’t answer any of the questions about Denmark. (I actually can’t even remember them.) Quite obviously, I shouldn’t know them. I didn’t grow up learning about the long history between Denmark and Sweden. If we’re being honest, I didn’t even know that Denmark is made up of more than 400 islands (what?!?! That’s insane / cool!!!).
And finally, I didn’t know that in Denmark, it’s rude to eat with one hand. I’ll admit it. I took cotillion in the 6th grade, and I traipsed around my fair share of “fancy” restaurants with my parents. I even got a job once as a last minute cater-waiter at a friend’s neighbor’s wedding because, as my friend said, “of all my friends, I figured you had the best table etiquette.” (Why, thank you!). And in my short lessons, I’ve learned the following steps to a graceful dinner:
- When cutting food, hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right.
- Cut one bite at a time
- Once your food is cut, gracefully (this is key — no dropping of the knife onto the table) lay your knife across the back of your plate, and switch your fork to your right hand
- Scoop or stab your food (although these words don’t seem very suave, I can’t think of a more tasteful way to talk about skewering food with a 3-pronged fork) with your right-handed fork and bring to your mouth.
- Switch your fork to your left hand, pick up your knife with your right, and repeat.
Apparently, as I was eating fishcakes in the sun, I was breaking many rules of Danish etiquette. Here I was, trying my best to follow all manner of good habits and prove how dainty and tasteful I was, and completely embarrassing myself instead. Not only that, but I was further cementing the stereotype many hold of uncouth and ill-mannered Americans. (For my part, I swear I tried to eat the way the Danish — and most Europeans — do, but I just kept forgetting. Old habits and all.)
It’s funny, though, when you think about it. It’s easy to assume that people doing things differently than you are wrong, but it’s harder to stop and consider difference as just that: a different — and equally correct — way of doing things. So, to bring this whole thing full circle (as you’ll know I’m apt to do), this is one of those “cultural lens” moments. Let’s all try a little harder to see things through others’ eyes. Understand the world they do, and maybe we’ll learn something new, understand it a bit better ourselves.
When was the last time you had a cultural mishap? Perhaps something (like mine!) entirely well meant and entirely mistakenly received? Maybe admitting it is the first step.