Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dining With Friends

Back when I was working at Nova, it was relatively common for my husband and I to dine out with co-workers. Often, this involved going to western-style restaurants in the Ikebukuro area but also to our favorite yakitori place and the branch it had in Nakano. Recently, there were a few incidents and situations which I read about on-line that reminded me of some particular points related to these experiences.

The first was a discussion of how payment is handled in a group situation on a food discussion bulletin board. The people taking part in the discussion were talking about how the bill was handled in certain situations. In the west, when a somewhat large group of people have a meal together, the most common approach is to evenly split the bill amongst all the participants. The main reason this is done is for simplicity but it's also not uncommon for people to divide up the bill according to what they actually ate. The former situation can sometimes cause hard feelings and financial hardship. There are people who can barely afford the expense of a meal out and who will be very conservative about what they order to keep within the confines of their budgets. Sometimes the poor or money-conscious eschew dessert and appetizers, skip ordering a beverage, and buy a reasonably priced entree only to find that those who have lavishly stuffed themselves with buffalo wings (or mini quiches for the fancier set) and lubricated themselves with beer (or cognac) have boisterously announced that the bill will be split equally among all attendees.

When this issue comes up, people say the reason for this is that it's too complicated to tally up individual expenses and too cumbersome for the wait staff to make separate checks. The interesting thing is that, in Japan, these don't tend to be problems for two reasons. First of all, despite the fact that waiters and waitresses don't get tips for service above and beyond, they are very amiable about writing up separate checks if you ask for them to do so when you place your order. Second, in large group situations, you tend to have to pre-arrange seating with establishments and they offer a "set" menu and charge per head.

The second situation is something non-drinkers tend to hate because, frankly, these set meals tend to be light on the food (and sometimes low quality) and heavier on the drinks though there are only so many drinks allowed in total in this deal then you have to start paying more or be cut off. Usually, you have to pay about ¥3,000 ($26) and this will get you a crack at the contents of a good many serving platters full of various appetizers and entree-type foods. You can sample various things in small portions sufficient to make a full meal if you are assertive and not off "powdering your nose" when the platters are initially brought in. However, it's rare that you get your money's worth on food alone and non-drinkers or those who drink little are pretty much losing out on the deal though this does neatly avoid any concern about the ending balance. Everyone knows the cost and pre-pays their portion before the night begins.

On the plus side in the Japanese situation, greed and gluttony are kept in check by the knowledge that there are limits on the total amount of food. In the American situation, the main problem is that people often go a little too far ordering drinks or lavish dishes because the responsibility for paying them is shared. Some people even knowingly order a great quantity or more expensive items knowing that their counterparts are picking up an unfair share of the tab.

The other point about dining out that has been on my mind is food sharing and sampling. If you've ever been with a friend or friends who want a taste of the dish you ordered or want just a few "tiny bites" of your dessert because they don't want to eat an entire one alone, you know what this is all about. With desserts in particular, this is often an exercise in denial and I don't mean the kind associated with keeping to a diet. Most people who want a taste of your chocolate cake end up eating half of it. In this case, it's rarely that they don't want to pay but more likely that they think the calories aren't counting if they didn't order it for themselves.

My husband and I had an unpleasant experience with this type of sampling at a German-style place in Ikebukuro with a friend of mine. We had all ordered our main dishes and my husband had ordered a side dish of "German potato". (I should note that, in our group, we always ordered separately and paid separately.) This particular side dish was a small portion and rather pricey (about ¥400 or $3.50) for its size. My friend asked to try the potatoes since she'd never had them and my husband willingly let her taste them. They were very much to her liking and she started essentially eating the entire dish herself. After she'd reached over for about the 4th or 5th "sampling", my husband politely asked her to stop eating them. My friend was very much taken aback and said she felt as though someone had just slapped her hand away. The rest of the meal felt awkward and uncomfortable because she remarked more than once on how she felt rebuffed.

The thing about this situation is that the person who starts helping himself or herself to your food is actually showing the poor manners but when you call them on it, they act as though you are the one who has behaved rudely. My friend, after her taste, should have ordered a helping for herself rather than keep eating my husband's food. In retrospect, I'm not quite sure why she didn't do this aside from the the time it would have taken to prepare and serve (it wouldn't arrive until after the rest of the meal was finished) because I know she wasn't cheap.

When Japanese groups eat together, I'm guessing this sort of issue is rarely a problem for several reasons. One is that I believe most food is ordered and served as community property in such group meals. Another is that Japanese people probably wouldn't show overt "selfishness" either by eating too much of something or by asking someone not to eat something. If such an occasion did occur, it's very likely that the person whose food was being gobbled down by another party would simply offer the dish to the interested party and say he was not hungry enough to finish it anyway.

As is so often the case, the Japanese situation seems to be set up to smooth over socially awkward situations as there are relatively clear cut ways of handling group dining whereas the western situation places responsibility for working out the social rules on each particular group and individual. It's a classic example of how one way sublimates the individual's needs or desires but makes the group experience better and the other meets the needs of the individual at the risk of the harmony of group.


Emsk said...

What bad behaviour from your friend! I think that food is often related to your personal space and intimacy; while your husband wouldn't have minded you helping yourself, and you may not have polished off his potatoes anyway because you knew he wanted them, this woman was intruding. In a way her behaviour said that she had the right to keep digging in, and she assumed she held a more important role in his life than she did. When your husband set up the boundary, she was affronted.

Still, it's a difficult one when people want to 'try' your food. I remember the girlfriend of a guy I hardly knew who kept pinching bits of my salad from my plate. Part of me didn't want to appear unsharing, but the other knew that I'd paid good money for it and I'd had to scrape the pennies together as it was. Eventually she commented that I probably thought it was really rude of her to keep doing this (my cue to say, "Oh no, help yourself."). I guess she was taken aback when I snapped that yes I did and that she could get her own at the vegeburger stall I'd gotten mine.

This reminds me in a way of a game my friend and I invented called The Inappropriate Game. I haven't blogged for a while, but I think I'll stick a post up.

Luis said...

Good, comprehensive post on the topic. One of the other things I dislike about such places is that they tend to encourage drinking, as beer is overpriced and tends to be their main money-maker. They'll do this by spacing out delivery of food items, delivering one dish every ten minutes or so, knowing that people will finish their beers and order more. While the food is delivered slowly, the beers are delivered promptly.

This can be doubly bad for non-drinkers. As you mentioned, it can elevate the cost of an "evenly" split bill so that non-drinkers pay heavily for a sparse meal. Furthermore, if you're not drinking beer, your food/drink intake mostly consists of just sitting there waiting for the next dish to be delivered, at which point you have to grab at the dish to get your share. At least the beer drinkers have their own glass of beer, and can get it replenished whenever they want.

One more reason why I don't particularly enjoy group outings to izakaya--the other major reason being the inevitable cigarette smoke.

Shari said...

You make a very good point about intimacy levels and personal space factoring into this sort of thing. I could see my friend eating my food as I knew her better (though it still would have been inappropriate) but not my husband's. You're right that I wouldn't consume his food (because I know he likes to eat different types of food in equal measures together). ;-)

The situation you mention with your friend's girlfriend seems a bit worse than mine though as she realized she was being rude (I'm not sure my friend did) and mentioned it so you would give her your approval to continue to carry on. It's rather doubly selfish to know you're taking something that doesn't belong to you but then to also request that your conscience be eased about doing so!

I'll be looking forward to your post on the "Inappropriate Game." It sounds interesting!

Anonymous said...


What cheeky buggers these people are at eating times.

And I agree with emsk with regards to the personal space and intimacy at eating time. If one of my wife's friends started just dunking into one of my dishes repeatedly, I'd think she is either damn--right rude considering we don't know each other well, or the possibility of her trying to say something to me indirectly.

Back in London, such instances were never a problem. It's always been a non-written custom for each of us to pay for our own food. It's quite easy really - order something and check the price, then round up to the nearest sum total.

And great storage rearrangement in your previous blog!

Shari said...

Luis: Thanks for the comment and sharing your experience. Your brother tells me he's had to do the mad grab for food at these sorts of occasions. He also said that at one of these types of parties at the place of employment you and he had in common (I don't want to give the name), they once had the cheek to go around at the end asking everyone to fork over 1000 yen more to cover the over-consumption of booze by most parties. Your brother refused (as well he should).

Barry: It's interesting because I didn't state this in my post (as I didn't think it was especially relevant) but the friend I spoke of is British (from Cambridge, I believe) and I read up on manners cross-culturally and it said it's considered bad manners in England to eat off of someone else's plate! Thanks for your input and for your kind comment (esp. about my rearrange ;-) ).

Miko said...

I agree, your friend was rude, but I can also imagine how very rebuffed she must have felt. Obviously, as emsk said, she was assuming an importance in your husband's life that he didn't share. But you know, I wouldn't even do that ("try" someone's food)to my son, let alone a friend. It's just rude. At the very least she could've offered to order another dish of potatoes just for him, to smooth the ruffled feathers.

Anyway, speaking of rude, I was once at a celebratory dinner in a restaurant where all the food was served to us communally in huge platters. When the scrumptious-looking seafood salad was set down, the lady sitting next to me pulled the plate towards her, quickly picked ALL the seafood out of it - every single bit! - and then pushed it back to the centre of the table, left with nothing but leafy greens. I was absolutely aghast - she knew full well that the salad was for everyone, and that we were splitting the bill. What terrible manners! You'd never see a Japanese do anything like that in a social situation.

Kanagawa G said...

One thing that I have noticed during my time here is that Japanese people will often forego social conventions when dealing with a non-Japanese. The most common is "yobi-sute" where people will immediately start referring to you on a first-name basis without the polite title "san" even just moments after meeting you for the first time. This is a big no-no in Japan. I have often had to ask people to stop doing this as it implies a close relationship that does not exist. It may be just my opinion, but I think that social conventions should apply to all those who are living in said society.

On another occasion, I was dinng at an okonomiyaki restaurant with my wife, who is a native of Hiroshima. As you may know, Hiroshima has a very unique style of preparing okonomiyaki which we were doing at this restaurant. Another customer (who was a regular of the shop) took it upon himself to come over and start mixing up all of our ingredients to "show us how it is done". Both of us were surprised by the invasion of our private space and by having a complete stranger come over and manhandle our food. We never visited that restaurant again and have recommended against others visiting, too.

Anonymous said...

This story was on National Public Radio (USA) recently. A couple went to various restaurants in the US and asked to taste food of strangers! Odd. I don't mind sharing food, but I don't think I'd let a stranger "taste" something from my plate.
Couple Finds Good Will in Taste Tests

by John Burnett

All Things Considered, June 29, 2007 · A food-loving couple from San Diego has launched a quirky social experiment: They go to restaurants and ask if they can taste other people's food. Surprisingly, most people happily comply — even offering their own forks!"

Shari said...

Miko: The woman who bogarted all the seafood was unfathomably rude! You're right that a Japanese person would almost certainly not do that. If I were in your shoes, I'd feel compelled to say something along the lines of, "I'm afraid you've mistook that platter of seafood for everyone as a single serving! You must be very embarrassed to have taken everyone's portion."

Kanagawa G: I wonder if they use first names and stop using "san" because most of us tell them to do so. I know I do, though I believe they should wait to be asked. As for the okonomiyaki incident, that was appalling! Sometimes people have the best of intentions but they do something truly ghastly instead. Since your wife is from Hiroshima, I'm surprised someone would take it upon themselves to "teach" her when she's rather obviously Japanese!

anonymous: I hadn't heard about that story but it reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry bets Elaine she won't go grab some food off a stranger's plate in a Chinese restaurant. The show you mention sounds like another in along line of U.S. shows meant to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior for cheap reality programming. It's rapidly approaching the point where people are going to lose the ability to be shocked because every boundary is going to be trampled all over.

Many thanks to each of you for taking the time to comment (and for such interesting comments)!