The other day I received a letter from a Turkish woman who has gone to study in Boston and who wanted to know about American restaurant culture. Here is her question:
Dear Charlotte: I have been in America for two months. I am studying business at a university here. I am so happy to have made some American friends. I do not always understand the right thing to do or expect here. I discovered Today’s Zaman recently. I read it when I want news of my homeland. I find your articles very practical in understanding the differences between Western and Turkish cultures. Would you explain to me why when a group of friends get together they go “Dutch”? I learned this since I have been here. You know, they each pay for their own meal at the restaurant. This is not a common practice in my home country. Also I want to know what to expect when I am a guest invited to dinner. Thanks! From: Ayşe
Dear Ayşe: Thanks for the good question. You are right that you rarely see in Turkey those who have gone to eat together splitting the price of the meal between them like you will see in America. In fact, in the States, restaurants expect to be told at the beginning when you order if your checks will be the same or separate. This is asked so the waiter can keep track of orders during the process of the meal. This is not Turkish practice at all.
I can’t tell you how many times in my early days in Turkey I insisted on paying for my part of the bill when I went out with a Turkish friend when really I should have graciously accepted. If you have been invited to eat out by a Turkish friend, you will not be expected to pay. In the US if it is a suggestion to eat out, you may not be considered a guest and will need to pay for your own meal. If you insist on paying the bill, however, here are a few points to help you understand American dining out etiquette:
When inviting your guest be specific about the time, date, and place. Be sure they know which location if it is a chain and more than one in the city.
Call your guest the afternoon before or the morning of the date set to eat out and reconfirm the plans.
Arrive at the restaurant a few minutes before the appointed time to check the table you’ve been designated and make sure it is acceptable.
Give your guests the best seats. Be sure if there is a nice view to let your guests have the view.
If you have eaten at the restaurant before, you can make suggestions about some of the meals.
If your get-together is social, you can have casual conversation the whole time; however, if it is a business meal, then it is important to have at least 15 minutes of casual talk and then get down to business and discuss matters at hand.
To close the business meal can be awkward. After you have finished eating and discussed your business you can wrap things up by agreeing on whether you need to set up any necessary future meeting. Stand up to signal the meeting is over. Thank everyone for coming and walk to the door together.
It can get awkward at the time of paying the bill if it is to be paid at the table. You should tell the waiter to give you the bill. A guest who has been invited should accept graciously and not cause a scene. At some restaurants you pay as you leave. If this is the case, you (or the host) should say goodbye to everyone and then go to the register line.
In Turkey, things are markedly different. Those of us who have been guests at a restaurant know how important it is to let the host pay the bill. You should not try to pay the entire bill or split the cost. This is really a foreign concept in Turkey. The idea here is that your host believes that if s/he were in your country you would pay for him. If appropriate, you can reciprocate later.
Thanks, Ayşe, for the practical question. It is important when you are in another culture to be familiar with the local etiquette. It will help make your time more enjoyable and you will be more comfortable and confident in every situation.
Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org