Was talking with a friend yesterday who has a close friend in Spain. My friend wants to go visit her elderly friend but the older lady has discouraged her coming because she has had some health problems and doesn’t feel like she can host her as well as she would want. They are very close and there is no doubt the elderly lady wants to see my friend, but the exchange just underscored some of the cultural differences in what it means to be a good host or a good guest.
As our world becomes more global and hopefully more intercultural, although given world politics and several of the leaders in the news I don’t know if that will happen, but if it does, this issue will assume more importance. In some cultures, the norm is to just drop by and everyone will be expected to stop whatever they are doing and entertain the guest. One time that happened to us when we had family visiting and the guests came so late we had all gone to bed. But we got up, got dressed, put on the tea and got out the cookies. In some cultures, guests expect to be entertained, others not so much. In some situations, dropping by for tea means just that. In others, you would do well to skip lunch because you will be served the equivalent of a full course meal in terms of the variety of snacks provided. There are differences in where it is considered polite to sit, whether or not you leave your shoes at the door, whether you take a gift and even in the frequency and reciprocity of visiting.
In some cultures, the reverence and honor afforded guests is so strong that it becomes almost sacred. The host feels very bound to adhere to traditional expectations and go out of his/her way to make the guest feel welcomed and honored. In other cultures, typically ones that are more individualistic, the friend dropping by is treated much more casually. Clearly, no one way is better than another, but the difficulty arises when the host is expecting one thing and the guest another. When expectations are not met, people have a tendency to attribute the cause of the failure to a problem in the relationship, a perceived slight, or someone going over the top and being excessive. It is generally best in my view, when something unexpected occurs, to assume that one doesn’t know the reasons. It is good to research and ask people what is typical in a given culture before leaping to conclusions that could well be wrong for the culture in question.
All of this strongly relates to how cultures vary in how they see friendship, its depth, what is allowable, what friendship means.