Sharing candy with a stranger

Having just read Tammi’s post on the role that food and eating out takes in Italian social interactions got me questioning our own society. How do we interact with others during food. What about these so-called “share” plates? Or perhaps the “communal” tables? Do we actually share? Is food or even wine a great social lubricant here in Australia?

Eating – and dining are a very personal thing here. Going out to dinner for a birthday, cooking dinner as a show of thanks, the family roast, a romantic dinner for 2. These are all ways in which we share our emotion and our friendship with each other through food. Each of these examples though are an inherently private experience. Having a stranger crash a birthday party would be construed as rude, a housemate inviting themselves into the thankyou meal may be alright, perhaps a little awkward and even an overly friendly waitress may strange during a romantic dinner.

And there is nothing wrong with feeling any of that. But couldn’t it – shouldn’t it be so much more than that? Isn’t eating a way of bringing in new friends and acquaintances? A shared meal with a new flatmate, going to the inlaws for dinner or having coffee as an initial business meeting. Each a common practice so why not with a complete stranger? Why are we so protective of our food when we are eating out?

But are we as a society afraid of taking this to the next step? Is having the only 2 spare seats at the communal table a little bit strange? Do we move the newspaper off the seat to invite someone to take a seat? Do we make eye contact? Say G’day? I don’t, but I should. Why not? Are these rituals so entrenched that other people entering in them is foreign and unwelcome. I know my mother would love the idea of the communal seating. Her super friendliness would have her knowing the life story of all her fellow diners in minutes.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was eating at Cumulus enjoy a late meal of cured meats. We had lucked out and scored a seat at the big communal table across from 3 people. As they were struggling through the lamb shoulder I asked them how they were enjoying it. They loved it and they offered for us to finish it. It felt awkward as we finished the piece of meat and though we thanked them for their generosity that’s where our relationship ended. This was the perfect peace offering, a breaking of bread, an offering of the olive branch and yet we didn’t converse. We shared no wine nor even a good bye.

We often think of bars as a place to go to meet people (though how good it actually is is debatable). There is a certain casualness, the bar forms a shared ground and naturally strangers will meet. Add a little bit of wine and conversation can flow and friendships may form. And now as restaurants are sharing more and more features with bars; will this same social dynamic occur?

This idea of sharing your meal with strangers isn’t that foreign when staying in backpackers. Often enough someone you don’t know will offer you a cup of tea, a plate of pasta or even a beer. It breaks down the barriers – it’s easy to enjoy a beer together with no common language. In fact, I learnt a lot about loving food from strangers in hostels. But where do we draw the line? Why is it that when we are out of our comfort zone we will let someone in, but at a restaurant or cafe perhaps not?

I’m really curious to learn more about how other cultures are affected by this. Is sharing eating experiences with strangers common elsewhere? Is there a shift towards social or anti-social eating?

I suppose it all begs the question. If a stranger offers you a lolly, do you accept?

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31 Responses to “Sharing candy with a stranger”

  1. Tammi commented:

    Nice reflections, Michael. I’ve had plenty of time to think about this on my current trip in Italy, as you noted (thanks for the linklove, btw ;-)). I think you really hit it when you asked ‘Why is it that when we are out of our comfort zone we will let someone in, but at a restaurant or cafe perhaps not?’

    Most people in restaurants and cafes have gone there expressly to socialise with a person or group. They’re therefore unlikely to want to have that intentional time interrupted by ‘strangers’. My experience is that people alone are certainly more open to chatting, sharing, etc, and those with friends or family are quite simply already busy being social with those they came with. So when overseas, quite often people are alone or traveling with a partner and enjoy the interaction with others more than they do at home.

    Culturally, even the gregarious Italians have proven relatively impenetrable in bars and ristoranti. They’re being very social indeed, but not with me. The waiters have been extremely friendly, especially once I try my very limited Italian on them, and I’ve learned a great deal and been given lots of advice on what to eat where. :-) But the tables all around me have been essentially uninterested in the red-headed foreigner in their midst. I think it’s pretty normal everywhere, really, even in places like Vietnam, where interactions with other tables tend to be functional rather than social, per se.

    I’ll report back on what I find in Sicily next. ;-)

  2. History is dead, Italy is alive! » Tammi Tasting Terroir commented:

    […] to penetrate the self-contained extant social groups of the locals? My thoughts on dining alone and Michael’s on why don’t we break down more social barriers when sharing a table in public explore some […]

  3. Zoe commented:

    I’m one of those compulsive talk to strangers types. Mostly, I have really nice little conversations with people.

    One of the reasons why I do was described by Eva Cox in her Boyer lectures on civil society in 1995. Our lives are enriched by the mundane conversations we have with the person at the cafe, or the bus stop at the garden centre. Yes, even at Bunnings.

    Respecting the humanity of people around you, and being open to engagement with them makes ordinary bits of your day deeply warm and fuzzy.

    Sometimes people just ignore you, and fair enough. Sometimes I get the shits too.

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