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The Global Citizen's Holiday Guide to Getting it All Completely Wrong

A cartoon of a 1950s era woman looking at her watch and a table full of dinner guests all staring at her

If you want to approximate my recent American Thanksgiving experience, simply imagine yourself walking into what you thought was going to be a leisurely Thanksgiving gathering about twenty(ish) minutes past the time you thought everyone would be showing up for pre-meal drinks and general commiseration, only to find the host and the other guests not only already seated at the table, but actually scraping the last vestiges of their meals from their plates.

Yep, that was me. I was that person this Thanksgiving. And to be honest, I should have seen it coming - I completely took my eye off the ball.

While this type of gaffe might seem out of character for someone who very much considers herself to be a global citizen, I have since arrived at the conclusion that getting it so completely wrong in this manner does not necessarily happen in spite of one being a citizen of the world, but rather it can happen because of it.

Holiday Guide Tip: Forget What You Think You Know

I started travelling the world for various jobs immediately after graduating from University in the early 90s, and with very few exceptions, I really have never stopped. I worked on cruise ships for years where I observed how North Americans of a particular age bracket will pretty much knife each other in the kidney to secure an early 5:30 pm first seating dinner time, whereas our neighbours from Central and South America, as well as their Spanish brethren across the Atlantic will saunter in to the dining room at the earliest around 10:30 pm, expecting the first of seven courses of a dinner that could last upwards of four hours. I have learned the hard way that people who are observably anxious about being late will almost always be habitually, if not inconveniently early, and I've learned that when you throw a party in Scotland that starts at 8 pm (not a dinner party, a party-party), there will be people at your door at the stroke of eight while you're still taking the heatless curlers out of your hair, thinking you've still got a few minutes.

It is my working theory that after years of travel, my sensibilities have become unconsciously wired-in to some sort of hybrid Euro-Brit-American social biorhythm. In my perfect party world if a gathering starts at 8, you can still be putting the finishing touches on your face at 8, because you have a good 20 minutes before you have to leave. Hell, nobody wants to be the first to arrive, right?

For dinner parties, understandably with food coming out of the kitchen the guidelines are absolutely a bit more stringent, and I have always been of the mind that for a dinner party invitation, you tell people some version of "we will sit down to eat at eight but the drinks will be flowing from seven", or some such thing. But do not be fooled - despite their more defined start times, dinner parties too can be littered with many other types of social booby trap, and not just around starting times. For instance, in the USA it's pretty normal to bring the host of a dinner party a bottle of wine, and the host will quite often pop the cork on that bottle right then and there. However, if your host is a wine enthusiast, He or she has likely already picked out a wine pairing for the meal, and your bottle will likely be stored, relegated to a later date. If your hosts are wine people, your gift of wine really needs to be a good bottle for them to enjoy on their own, some other time. However, if you were to play out that same scenario in France, bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner party can be interpreted as an outright insult. Not only has the host again already likely attended to the aforementioned wine pairings, but in France bringing a bottle could be interpreted as a suggestion that you do not trust the host's taste in wine. Sacré bleu.

The same holds true for other types of common host and hostess gifts, like say, flowers. While a lovely bouquet seems innocuous enough, some consider it gauche to buy someone something they then have to then seek out a vase for while also trying to put the finishing touches on the meal. There are also many types of flowers that hold cultural symbolism; in the US and the UK, lilies are often considered funeral flowers. Again looking to the example of France, it's chrysanthemums that are considered funerary, white flowers are reserved for weddings, yellow for infidelity, and red carnations can be considered an outright insult to the host. And now my head hurts.

What I'm getting at here is that every place you go on this big blue marble, there's some degree of sociocultural nuance involved in social gatherings. In my particular situation, my exposure to a zillion different cultural norms collided head on with the fact that it was an American Thanksgiving "dinner" in the middle of the day. As a dyed in the wool "Yank" (as they would call me here in the UK), my inherent knowledge of American Thanksgiving meals often being served at what most non Americans might consider strange times - the early "in-between times" in the mid to late afternoon, also played a part. In retrospect I realise that I did more than a little bit of assuming that there would be at least an hour or maybe even two of drinks and chitchat before the main event. Nope. Whether this timing was originally a digestive decision or one meant to lessen the serving burden on the host, I do not know, because stupidly, my assuming self did not ask. After all, It could have just been a straight-up lunch.

So all of that contextually considered, when my host, who is also one of my neighbours in Southwest Florida, came to my door one afternoon and invited me over, telling me he was gong to "do Thanksgiving on Sunday, starting at about one o'clock", what I should have done was immediately clarify what that meant. But I didn't. I had been engaged in finishing-up hurricane yard cleanup and some other business dealings for the better part of my short trip there, so when he invited me to Thanksgiving my brain happily just skipped right past everything I already knew to be true about the cultural norms of our little corner of Florida (one of the earliest-to-eat places I have ever known), and immediately began to relish the idea of chilling for an afternoon with some fellow Yanks in a traditional Thanksgiving setting. I had visions in my head of at least a few glasses of wine and some banter, followed by a languid afternoon feast, maybe there would be a game on...I figured the gathering would take up most of the rest of my day.

In retrospect, I see my assumption for what it was - wishful thinking. We are not culturally attuned to regular long, languid, hours long feasts in that part of the world. In our part of Florida, if you pitch up to a restaurant at 8pm, you will be one of the last through the doors (if they even let you in), and by 8:45 the waitress will probably plop the check onto the table next to your still-steaming entrée and be sighing with impatience at the cash register as you chew. No, I daresay my situation came to pass because in the absence of me doing any due diligence, my brain filled-in the thing that it clearly wanted, instead of allowing me to see the thing that was actually happening.

So in I rolled, twenty(ish) minutes late after deciding to shower because I'd stayed outside digging in the dirt a little too long, thinking that I would be having some wine or appetizers at the Theoretical Languid Thanksgiving of My Mind. Instead I found myself with all eyes on me, the dagger-like gazes of the other guests unceremoniously deflating my unrealistic expectations like a pin to a soap bubble.

One tiny spot of relief came when I realized I had forgotten the bottle of wine that the host had told me not to bother bringing but that I had on hand and was intending to bring anyway. While any other sensible holiday guide would tell you that this was a lapse in ettiquitte, in that moment I felt utterly relieved that I didn't have it with me; it would have highlighted the fact that I'd literally gotten wrong every "instruction" I'd been (sort of) given with a 100% success rate. However, that relief quickly turned to dread when I simultaneously realized that there was in fact no wine anywhere to be seen, nobody at that table was drinking, and if I wanted to eat at all, I needed to do it in the next three minutes or it would be too late.

Unable to drown my shame a with a few glasses of Malbec, I spent the next fifteen minutes eating as fast as I dared while making extremely awkward conversation in an attempt to deploy my rarely-used Defcon 5 Charm Offensive in an attempt to win back the room. There was no dessert. Or at least there was certainly there was none for me. The upside is I definitely didn't eat too much.

So in the spirit of helping fellow citizens of the world avoid what I did this past Thanksgiving, let us all take a moment to browse these perfectly lovely, mostly neutral and culturally inoffensive host and hostess gifts for your next holiday gathering. At the very least, you might be able to use them to hide behind when you arrive late to the party and everyone is already seated and glaring at you.

A cartoon of a young woman holding a bright red gift box


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