Understanding Hospitality: Direct vs Indirect Cultures

In ancient times, being hospitable meant welcoming strangers and providing them with food, shelter, and safety. Some cultures still follow this tradition today, but in others, the meaning of hospitality has changed a bit.

In direct cultures like the U.S., hospitality is less about survival and protection and more about manners and entertainment. Direct cultures are known for planning their hospitality, paying attention to even the smallest details. While they still show respect and care for their guests, it’s usually limited to what was planned.

On the other hand, indirect cultures have a habit of going beyond what was planned, often offering “spontaneous” hospitality that surpasses expectations.

The book Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier explores the significant differences between direct and indirect cultures. You might remember learning about these differences in our previous articles; if not, go brush up here!

When it comes to hospitality, Sarah explains that indirect cultures mostly engage in spontaneous hospitality, while direct cultures tend to follow planned hospitality. Understanding these variations in hospitality across different cultures becomes crucial when hosting international guests or being in an international setting; it helps ensure that everyone can communicate and interact in a way that promotes harmony.

Planned Vs Spontaneous Hosting 📅

In the U.S., there’s typically a lot of cleaning and preparation before hosting guests at home. In direct cultures, hosting at home is often viewed as a formal event and is approached with seriousness and careful planning. Hospitality is considered a special occasion in direct cultures, and hosts devote their full attention to entertaining and taking good care of their guests.

On the other hand, hospitality is more spontaneous and not heavily planned in indirect cultures. Sarah had a valuable lesson about the differences between planned and spontaneous hospitality, as illustrated in the following excerpt from Foreign to Familiar:

When I first went to Chile, I was looking forward to the hospitality and assumed that I would be invited into the homes of the people. The first month I was there, however, although I was in a small community and people knew I was there, nothing happened. I was crushed by this… I voiced my disappointment to Ricardo, my mentor. He laughed and said, “Sarah, they are offended that you have not come by. You stay to yourself at night like you don’t want relationship. We don’t send out invitations around here. You just come by.”

“But how can I ‘come by’ when I don’t even know these people?” I asked.

“That’s just the way it’s done,” he said. “Only formal occasions require invitations. The rest is spontaneous.” (p. 72-73)

Sarah was accustomed to the hospitality norms of a direct culture, where it’s common to receive invitations well in advance, often for a specific day or even weeks beforehand. However, when Sarah found herself in a new indirect culture, she encountered a different approach to hospitality. She realized that in this culture, hospitality was spontaneous, without any prior warning or formal invitation. They didn’t feel the need to prepare for her arrival; they simply wanted to spend time with her and foster a connection.

Privacy Vs Inclusion 🔐

The contrasting perspectives on privacy and inclusion between indirect and direct cultures contribute to the significant differences in hospitality. Let’s see the continuation of Sarah’s conversation with her mentor regarding spontaneous hospitality:

“But what if people are busy or want to be left alone? How would I know when to come over?” I insisted.

“Sarah,” he told me, “you just don’t get it. Coming over will never interrupt them. They will continue cooking, playing with the kids, or watering the garden. You will just fit into whatever is going on at the moment. They won’t drop everything to sit in a formal living room with you. In our culture, people come first, and our own desires come last. We would never forfeit hospitality for time alone.” (p. 73)

In indirect cultures, the concept of privacy is less emphasized, and there’s a strong preference for inclusivity. People in these cultures naturally include others in various aspects such as meals, plans, conversations, and more. Being left alone is not desirable, and it’s considered rude to exclude others. The guiding principle is “We all take care of each other, and no one stands alone.”

Upon Sarah’s return to a direct culture, where hospitality was typically organized ahead of time, she found herself needing to readjust and relearn how people in that culture planned and allocated their time. This was necessary to effectively spend time with her friends and acquaintances. This is what she said about it:

As a [direct] person in Chile, my greatest sacrifice was giving up my time to myself. I never knew when I would be interrupted. It seemed exhausting until I got used to it. Then it became second nature to me. Soon after returning to Amsterdam from Chile, one Sunday afternoon I cooked up some food, which I often do for recreation. I then proceeded to call around to friends to invite them over that evening to eat. Call after call was met with disappointment. No one could come. I would get the response of: “I would ordinarily have loved to come, but I was planning to just relax tonight,” or “Oh, if I’d only known earlier, but I’ve taken a bath now and don’t want to go back out. How about if we do lunch on Tuesday?” Well, I wasn’t lonely at lunchtime on Tuesday; I was lonely on Sunday night. Yet because of the need they had to have planned to come, I was not able to convince a single friend to come over. That’s when I realized a reason for loneliness in our well-organized city. What we needed was some [indirect culture] spontaneous relationship and a little less [direct culture] structured privacy.

(p. 62)

Direct cultures place a high value on privacy, including their belongings, discussions, and especially their time. People in direct cultures appreciate having personal time and space, which they schedule into their routines on purpose. That’s why it’s custom to extend an invitation before visiting someone in a direct culture, as it respects their need for privacy and allows them to prepare for your arrival.

Other Differences between Structured and Spontaneous Hosts 👀

Many new travelers only discover the cultural differences in hospitality when it’s already too late, leading to misunderstandings or even mistakes. In spontaneous cultures, hosts are accustomed to fully caring for their guests’ needs without expecting any payment, except perhaps a gift as a token of appreciation.

When travelers unexpectedly seek hospitality, what matters most to them is being able to stay with people they know or trust, even if it means sleeping on the floor or having a simple meal. Hosts welcome these travelers and provide for them to the best of their abilities.

In more structured cultures like the U.S., travelers are expected to take responsibility for their arrangements. This means that guests should either have prior confirmation to stay with their hosts or make alternative arrangements, such as booking a hotel. In direct cultures, guests should also anticipate covering their expenses for transportation, food, and entertainment, unless the host explicitly offers to pay by saying phrases like “I’ll pay” or “my treat” when extending the invitation.

When visiting the U.S., international visitors often learn in a painful and humiliating way that North Americans assume everyone will pay for themselves. For example, when going out with friends to the beach, if a foreign guest is unable to afford an ice cream treat, it can be extremely embarrassing as their friends enjoy their ice cream. This situation highlights the discomfort and humiliation caused by not having enough money in such instances (Foreign to Familiar, p. 76).

In business settings, direct or structured cultures generally prefer to entertain potential clients or partners at upscale restaurants rather than in their homes. They tend to maintain a clear boundary between their professional and personal relationships. However, in indirect and spontaneous cultures, the approach is different. Hosting someone at a restaurant instead of inviting them into one’s home is considered impersonal and not a demonstration of good hospitality. In indirect cultures, it’s customary to invite business clients and partners into one’s home to foster personal connections from which business interactions can later develop.

Final Thoughts 💭

Hospitality forms the foundation of relationships across all cultures. In direct cultures, the emphasis is on planning and creating a “perfect” environment to entertain guests and fulfill their needs. In contrast, indirect cultures offer a different kind of “perfect” hospitality that is spontaneous and unplanned. Traveling between cultures with contrasting hospitality styles can lead to misunderstandings, challenges, and even strained relationships if one fails to comprehend the prevailing hospitality norms.

Before traveling to a different culture, learning and understanding the specific type of hospitality practiced there is crucial. This knowledge enables more successful relationship-building. The same principle applies when hosting international guests or befriending individuals from other cultures. Make an effort to familiarize yourself with their customs, ensuring effective communication and establishing relationships based on mutual understanding rather than misunderstandings.

Both spontaneous, indirect cultures and planned, direct cultures can benefit from learning from one another. Striking a balance between spontaneity and planning, as well as combining spontaneous hospitality with structured approaches, can enrich the overall hospitality experience.

Your fav chameleon, here! After reading this, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of structured hospitality compared to spontaneous hospitality in fostering meaningful connections and creating memorable experiences?

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