Cultural Competence and Cheese Cutting

When I’m at dinner at someone’s home in France, they often offer me the cheese plate first, since I’m the guest. Very gracious, and of course I love cheese and I want to try all of them. I was taught that the cheese plate only comes around once, so there is a little pressure on me to get it right.

I never get it right.

I say, oh, please serve yourself first! But they insist that I must go first, since I’m the guest. Then I tell them the truth; that I don’t know how to cut the cheese, and I know that it’s important to them, and it would be better if someone else went first, so that I could follow an example.

Nonsense, they say, there is no wrong way to cut cheese; please JP serve yourself.

So I serve myself. The cheese plate only comes around once, so I take off a little piece of each of the cheeses to try. I watch people’s faces deflate in disappointment, as they realize that there actually is a right and wrong way to cut cheese, and I totally blew it.

A lot of people think that culture is about folkloric costumes and national ballets. That stuff is all great, but when we talk about “culture” as in cultural differences, and culture clash, what we’re actually talking about is common sense.

Common sense is culture-specific. It’s an invisible set of customs and rules that nobody has to think about if they’re from the same culture; they’ll never question it until someone violates the rule; the way I violate the French cheese plate.

I will post a picture of the French cheese cutting rules that I discovered in social media last week. Apparently they are now talking about it, so it has become a matter of etiquette; perhaps there has been so many violations of the custom that they care enough to make it explicit. Maybe they did this just for me.

This is the poster that I saw in social media; it blew my mind to see this explained so clearly here.

Now that I see it, it’s clear to me, I can explain it just as well as a French person; it’s common sense. I totally get it. I only had to see this graphic for a second, and suddenly my decades of turpitude during the cheese course have come to an end.

Here’s the same information with actual cheese.

When you’re at a dinner party, (and hopefully you are, when you are in France), the cheese plate only comes around once, so when you serve yourself, you have to do so in a way that satisfies your love and curiosity about cheese, but evenly distributes all the cheese for everyone in the room. These recommended cuts try to keep the cheese amount even for every guest. Some of the cuts are intuitive, but some are not. I was always screwing up the Brie and the Roquefort, and when I mean “screwing up,” what I mean is I was starting the cut in a way that would leave the last person with nothing but a piece of rind. And since the cheese plate goes around the table in one direction, that person left with rind is probably the person immediately next to me.

Roquefort is shaped in these wedges, and the best part is in the center.

Roquefort is most delicious in the center, and the rind is not great. If you slice it the “proper” way, every guest will get a little bit of center and a little bit of rind. The portion may be uneven, but this way everybody enjoys the center. This is common sense, according to French people, but there is no way a Filipino American kid from Seattle would just magically intuit this.

Slice Brie this way at a dinner party so that everyone gets a similar amount.
Slice brie this way to pack it in your lunch box. Don’t do this at a dinner party, though, they will accuse you of “cutting off the nose.”

Brie is also an awkward shape to try to distribute evenly at a dinner party, and if you do it wrong, someone will accuse you of “cutting off the nose,” which is TOTALLY BAFFLING but also seems really negative. If you grew up steeped in French culture, you’d know both a) how to slice this elegantly at a dinner party, and b) the meaning of the expression “cutting off the nose.” But if you’re a Filipino American kid in France for a few months doing study abroad, that is a lot to expect.

Many people will be surprised to learn that Americans also have a culture-specific “common sense” rules that we don’t think about unless they are violated. When we enter an elevator, we face the door; it’s a rule. We eat pizza from tip to crust, and not from side to side or bottom to top. We stifle our belches. We remain standing for other countries’ national anthems. We wear basketball shorts when we’re not playing basketball.

All of these things are culture-specific to us; they don’t necessarily occur to other people. French people will smile politely when you take them on a tour of your home, but later will commiserate with their friends about how creepy it is that you took showed them your bedroom the moment they arrived. “It’s just common courtesy,” we say, but it’s a culturally specific common courtesy, and it baffles them, the same way that their cheese cutting baffles us.

The same way it baffles us when they put their bread on the table, instead of on a plate.

The same way it shocks Asian people when you walk into their homes with your shoes on. And when you happily remove your shoes, but then ALSO REMOVE YOUR SOCKS?! Don’t do that!

The same way it shocks Latinos when you put your shoes on the furniture, whether you’re in a house in an office, or on a bus, or in a train.

The same way it shocks us when we go to Japan, Brazil, or Finland and there is canned, cut corn on your pizza.

The same way it shocks Europeans and Asians to see native Hawaiians eating poi with their hands.

I grew up as a minority in this country, so culture clash has always been part of my life. I’ve also made it my business to travel and experience other cultures. I have a lot of experience in shocking culture clash situations, and to tell you the truth I kind of look down on people who handle culture clash poorly.

That said, I was in my mid 30s in China, and every day for me was a culture clash disaster. I had my own “common sense” culturally specific ideas that I constantly tripped over; concepts like, “you’re in my way” (that space doesn’t actually belong to you) and “you’re taking too long” (your rush is your own problem). I tended to take personal offense when someone lied to me, which was several times an hour in Shanghai, if you’re out in public. I didn’t always understand who to mind and who to yell at, and when I would start getting mad at all of China, I had to take myself aside and tell myself, this is their country; their common sense is the one that counts here.

One time I was in Taiwan, and a teacher was asking me about the English word “foreigner.” I told her we didn’t really use that word in American English very much. Certainly the word “foreigner” exists for us, but we didn’t use it to identify people, we’d never say, “look at her, she is a foreigner.” My teacher was shocked to hear me say that if I saw a Chinese person randomly on the sidewalk or in a drug store somewhere in Seattle, that everyone would assume that the person was a Chinese American, born here, English-speaking, rather than a “foreigner.” “Foreigner” is never our first assumption, not in Seattle, at least. It’s just our common sense.

We do have our common sense cultural tendencies, just like any other culture. However, as a nation of immigrants, are in constant contact we other cultures, and we have an expectation of ourselves to be more accepting of cultural differences. I heard a bigoted Filipino once say that we were “permissive,” but that person is a horrible bigot. We know not to act shocked when white people put soy sauce on their rice in a restaurant.

One time, when I was in France, I took my American students to a French elementary school, and French people asked my students if they had noticed any cultural differences. All the Americans said, yes of course, they have seen many. I thought to myself, this could get awkward.

When I was studying in France 20 years earlier, they asked me the same question, “Jean Patrique, what is your impression of France?” I struggled to answer in French, but I gave an honest and objective answer, “Tout est vieu.” Everything is old. We had just been given four days of tours of Paris and Avignon, and every single thing they pointed out to us was a from a different century. They seemed very impressed by it, naming the century with breathless exuberance. So when I said “tout est vieu” I was hoping to show them that I had been paying attention. Of course, they chuckled to each other and assumed that all Americans are fascinated by newness and took it as an insult that I called their country old. Shrug.

Anyway there I was again with my own students and a similar question/trap, “what cultural differences have you noticed about France?” I looked over at my students, and saw them trying to come up with something gracious to say. To their credit, they had more tact than I did. “Boys wear capri pants,” was their answer. Honestly, we were very shocked by this cultural-specific common sense custom of theirs, because where I’m from, boys don’t wear capri pants… they wear basketball shorts.

Happily they took that strange comment, “Boys wear capri pants” as a odd but valid observation, even having one of the students stand up and do a turn to model his capri pants, which he did happily.

I like to tell stories about France. It somehow feels safer than telling stories about Asia, since French people for the most part are white-skinned and Americans are not as quick to exoticize them as they are with Asians. I don’t buy that French culture is somehow closer more similar to American culture than Chinese culture is, since I felt equally alienated in both cultures. But the same rule applies; that cultures differ because we have different definitions of “common sense,” what we don’t notice unless the unspoken norms are violated.

I think we’ll all get along better when we learn to recognize and appreciate those cultural differences, rather than avoiding and resenting them (as I did in France) or raging against them (as I did in China). And to tell you the truth, I do expect more from Americans; we’re supposed to be multicultural and accepting, it’s part of our ethos.

From where I’m standing, it’s just common sense.

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