How I Became More Socially American: One Encounter at a Time

I was in seventh grade, at dinner at my friend’s house.  At the table were her parents, my friend and me.  It was a low key affair.  We were having hamburgers.  Across the table were tomatoes that I desperately wanted.  I’d learned from this very family, when I dined there last time, that reaching across the table was not polite.  My friend’s mother, a previous governess, gasped as my hand went for the dish on the other side of the table.  It was made clear to me, in a very polite way, that all I needed to do was ask for the dish and it would be passed to me.  As I sat there this time, staring at the tomatoes, I knew logically that I just needed to ask for the dish of tomatoes.  But I was caught in a cultural dilemma.  Growing up in a Chinese family, I was taught it was immensely impolite to ask an elder to do anything for me at the dinner table.  My job was to serve the elders, not the other way around.  So I sat there in confusion. My mind urged me to “just ask!”.  But my body just wouldn’t respond.  I couldn’t open my mouth.  With hunger beckoning me on, the twelve year old ate my hamburger without the tomatoes.

I have a litter of stories similar to this. Little missteps, noticing gaps in my behavior relative to my peers, all of which clued me into the fact that I was not acting in an “appropriate” manner.  There was no You Tube back then to check on these things.  It was all about observation and adaptation. Luckily I was always a very keen observer of human dynamics, even as a kid, so I improvised very quickly and over time, I looked like my American peers, except I was always carefully watching to make sure I was “fitting in”.

Social etiquette, what I described just now, can make or break our integration into a new environment.  We humans go back to our animal instincts.  We sense when someone’s movement or look just doesn’t fit.  We pick this up in a nanosecond.  If you are new and unaware of these subtleties, you can be taken out of the social game without ever knowing you were eliminated.

I see this all the time, whether in American or Chinese culture.  The non-American who sips his tea loudly at an American recruiter’s dinner, unaware that no noise should ever be made when eating.  The American who serves himself first at the Chinese dinner table, unaware that he should have served the eldest person sitting next to him.  Subtle.  But you might as well have shouted through a megaphone “Red Alert. We’ve got a violator here!!” Through our social etiquette eyes, this violator has been catapulted out of his seat, jettisoned from the social circle.  But switch back to real life, as you watch from an untrained eye, it’s as if nothing has happened.  The dinner continues.

For the newly uninitiated, it can be a slow and painful process to adapt.  This is particularly true when the social norms conflict with our upbringing, as illustrated by my hamburger incident. Even if these social rules are written in a book, adapting in the moment can pose challenges that even the best trained brain can’t outmaneuver.  The only way to adapt to a new set of social etiquette is to do it.  Just do it.  There is no other way.  Ask. Be watchful.  Be flexible.  Adapt quickly.  Fake it and keep moving on like no misstep ever happened.  The more you do this, the better you’ll observe and adapt.  As someone who has watched and adapted all my life, I can attest that this “watching and adapting” can be exceedingly tiring.  A part of you is never off.  So my advice?  Rather than lamenting over this horrible discomfort and entering into the unknown, take a different perspective.  Be curious.  Just be curious.  Wow, it’s cool they do dinner this way.  It’s really different how they get to know each other.  Wonder takes all the drudgery out of social adaptation.  It becomes a game of wonder and learning.  Can I master this new thing? Most of all, know that we never lose the honorable ways that our parents taught us.  Many clients worry that they’ll betray their family values.  I always tell them that their values are in tact, all that has changed is how they express their values.

Best of all, there’s great payoff when we learn the social etiquette of a new environment.  We are able to connect with new people and interact with them.  Etiquette is just a screen that we humans use to signal safety and belonging.  Once you learn the major social rules, you get through the door.  And beyond the door, stand so many amazing people whom you  can befriend.

As an immigrant child, I have many recollections of the “oops” I made along the way.  But for the most part, the initiated have met me with understanding, kindness and acceptance.  Some have even stepped out to make sure I would be successful.  When I was a senior in high school, I was the school-wide president and thus had an opportunity to represent my school at a major function at the Waldorf Astoria, a swanky NYC hotel embodying social etiquette at its highest.  I had no idea what was to come.  But my principal’s secretary did.  One day, she asked me to the office.  Thinking it was another school-related matter, I went to meet her nonchalantly.  When I got there, she led me through a door and at the table were plates, knives, forks, spoons, glasses and a napkin, all set up in an orchestrated arrangement.  She asked me to sit down and proceeded to teach me the etiquette of eating from outside-in.  She didn’t make a big fuss out of it.  She just thought I should know.  I will always remember her kindness.  Funny enough, twenty years after I graduated, I saw her at a neighborhood diner in Riverdale.  I still don’t remember her name, but I could pick her face out of a crowd.  I approached her, explained who I was and thanked her.  She remembered me, but not this incident.  To her, it may have been just another supportive gesture she did for a student.  For me, it was an act of kindness and empathy. It allowed me to take another step into my American self and to step out with confidence and grace. To this day, when I teach others about eating outside-in, I still remember her kindness and that moment when I sat down to that place setting thirty years ago.