Understanding Cultural Differences in Hospitality

In 2014, this Canadian/Brazilian moved from India to Germany. The extreme differences between Indian and German cultures was quite an adjustment for me! For example, in my apartment building in India, neighbours would meet me in the hall and invite me to come over for tea. But most of our German neighbours at our last apartment barely looked at us, let alone spoke with us. (One even reprimanded my friend for talking to her son when he was going out the front door. "I've taught him not to talk to strangers.") Indians expected a reply to text messages within minutes of sending the message; but Germans sometimes don't reply to a text message for a week. Indians would spontaneously ask me at 11pm if I wanted to go out for coffee, but if we invite Germans spontaneously to do something, 80% of the time they turn down the offer. Hosting and being hosted looks very different in Germany than it did in India. Cultural differences can range from entertaining to frustrating, but one thing I'm learning is that it helps to have a framework for understanding our differences.

After arriving in Germany, I finally read Foreign to Familiar, a book recommended to me by several people. The author, Sarah A. Lanier, has lived and worked cross-culturally for many years and in her book she lumps typical cultural traits into two categories: "hot culture" and "cold culture". I found her generalizations to be helpful in giving insight into relationships I have had or currently have with people of other cultures.  

Being able to identify which culture a guest (or potential guest) is from and adjust your hospitality accordingly can be very effective! For example, Foreign to Familiar encouraged me to drop in spontaneously on my friends of certain cultures, but to plan ahead with my friends of other cultures. This post will cover a few of the main ideas of her book, with the intention of applying it in the context of cross-cultural hospitality. I've broken up the post accordingly: 

  1. What are “hot” and “cold” cultures?
  2. What are the key differences between hot and cold cultures?
  3. Tips for people of cold cultures hosting people of hot cultures
  4. Tips for people of hot cultures hosting people of cold cultures

Of course, these cultural observations are not an excuse for getting to know your particular friend or neighbour and learning his or her preferences. People are unique! But if this article helps you to ask better questions sooner, and learn how to show love to your friend or acquaintance faster, I have accomplished my goal.

What are “hot” and “cold” cultures?

Lanier categorizes everyone into either "hot" or "cold" culture categories. The main difference is that for hot (sometimes rural/tribal) cultures the ruling value is relationships, while for cold (sometimes urban) cultures, the ruling value is efficiency. These cultural differences may have developed because of the weather and economies of various parts of the world. In areas where the weather was warm, people lived off the land and were very interdependent. In areas where the weather was colder, people developed a more task-oriented, independent nature and more industrialized economies. In any case, there are many distinct traits that bind these cultures together worldwide.

Hot cultures include:

People from the southern USA, South and Central/Latin Americans, Israelis with a Middle Eastern background, Russians, indigenous Alaskans, people of the Andes and Himalayas, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Africans, Mediterraneans (except Jewish Israelis), Middle Easterners and most of the rest of the world not included in the cold cultures list.

Cold cultures include:

People from the Northern USA and Canada, Israelis of European background, Swiss and Europeans living north of the Swiss, Caucasians from New Zealand, Australians, southern Brazilians, South Africans and areas largely settled by Europeans (like Argentina).

Are you from a hot or a cold culture?
Was your last international guest from a hot or a cold culture?

What are the key differences between people of hot cultures and people of cold cultures?

Relationship orientation vs. task orientation

People from hot cultures tend to build their lives around people and relationships, while people from cold cultures tend to plan in terms of tasks and timelines.

Indirect communication vs. direct communication

People from hot cultures tend to prefer indirect communication and don't want to harm a relationship by giving an answer someone does not want to hear. Cold cultures tend to prioritize direct communication because it "gets the job done"!

Group Identity vs. Individualism

Hot cultures raise children who see themselves  as a part of a larger group (family, school, church, etc. ) People from hot cultures will often maintain very close contact with their extended family, often living inter-generationally under the same roof throughout their adult lives. Cold cultures tend to think more individualistically—"I'll do it my way"—and raise their children to live on their own and make decisions more independently. 

Inclusion vs. Privacy

Because of the group mentality of people from hot cultures, they automatically expect to be included or include others in whatever is happening in their presence. People from cold cultures tend to be more individualistic, meaning that they expect to be given a measure of privacy or to be asked if someone else can join the group. 

Tips for people of cold cultures hosting people of hot cultures

If you're someone from a cold culture who's seeking to bridge gaps and make friendships with people of warm cultures, these ideas may help. 

  • Small talk is important in relationships with people of hot cultures. “Getting straight to business” is the cold-culture, task-oriented way of visiting with someone, but hot culture people prioritize a feel-good atmosphere.
  • Your hot culture friend will be willing to flex his schedule or time for your relationship, and will likely expect the same in return. 
  • Good hospitality is best offered in your home, because a restaurant is impersonal (there may be some exceptions to this rule — Chinese people often take guests to a restaurant). An overnight guest from a warm culture may feel hurt if you put him or her up in a hotel instead of at your home.
  • Feel free to spontaneously drop in on your warm culture friend, but don’t expect that he will necessarily drop everything he is doing when you arrive. He may just invite you along to do what he was already doing (going to pick up the kids, watering the garden, cooking supper) when you dropped in.
  • Avoid yes/no questions to avoid embarrassing your warm culture friend in any way. Being friendly is essential, as is phrasing questions in a way that they don’t offend by their directness. 
  • Hot culture guests may value making you feel good more than telling you the truth. It might be difficult to tell when someone of a hot culture needs to say “no” but is saying “yes” because he or she wants to preserve your relationship. People of hot cultures will almost always say “yes” to a direct question because they feel rude saying “no”. One way to overcome this and find out the truth about a situation may be to ask indirectly — go through another person to ask indirect questions around a topic that needs discussing. (See Lanier's book for more ideas on this subject.)
  • People from hot cultures often enjoy having someone with them at all times. Lanier wrote about being hosted in Africa, where the hostess purposely put another guest in the room “so you won’t have to be alone.” I have noticed this with Indian friends too, that eating meals on their own is very difficult for them — they would much rather eat with someone else. The loneliness of a hot culture person living in a cold culture can be overwhelming, because he or she is not used to living life and making so many decisions on his or her own. Being aware of this can help you to offer companionship or help in ways your hot culture friend really appreciates.
  • A longer-term guest from a hot culture who is staying with you may assume he or she is included in anything that is going on, and may expect that everything will be shared or done together. Be careful — your guest may feel slighted if you mention something you’ll be doing without intending to invite him or her along.
  • Food in particular is seen as something be shared. Taking food along to share with people of a hot culture (even if that is just taking food to share in the lunchroom with your Filipino or Indian coworkers) builds relationships. In a hot culture, Lanier generalizes that “no one is left out, no one is lonely.” Possessions are often shared in hot cultures; it’s not “my” bike, it’s “our” bike.
  • People of hot cultures may appreciate being included, even spontaneously and even by a stranger. The author wrote about how she was eating alone at a restaurant, saw a Mexican family eating at a nearby table, and asked if she could eat with them. They thought it was completely normal to eat together and were in fact happy that she had asked to eat with them. Asking someone of a warm culture for a ride if they are going where you are going is almost expected — they would think it strange for you to go somewhere on your own, anyway!
  • Usually in hot cultures, the host takes care of his overnight guest’s expenses, and the guest brings a gift. As a cold culture host of a warm culture guest, you might even consider giving your guest some spending money if he or she is coming from another country. 
  • In most cultures, when you invite someone out to eat, it means you’re paying the bill. 
  • Whole families are usually included in events outside of the workplace. People from warm cultures don’t really understand “adults only” events in the same way people of cold cultures would. When you invite your hot culture contacts to spend time with you outside of working hours, know that they might assume they can bring their families along.

Tips for people of hot cultures hosting people of cold cultures

Probably most of the readers of this blog are coming from cold (ie: Western European or North American) cultures rather than hot cultures. However, here are some points for you, the hot culture host, to consider when hosting someone from a cold culture.

  • Usually a friend from a cold culture feels respected when you honour his or her time by being punctual. Your friend probably thinks in terms of tasks to be completed that day, and may have other things on his or her schedule. 
  • Cold culture guests appreciate planning and advance invitations. Their refusal of an invitation may not be because they don't want to come — it may simply be because your last-minute invitation for Saturday lunch interfered with their efficient Saturday plans prepared days in advance.
  • What your host or guest considers honest communication, you may consider too direct. Try not to take offence, and be grateful that your cold culture friend is telling you what he or she truly wants! If you ask a preference, you may not get the answer you hoped for, but you will usually find out the truth.
  • If your cold culture guest is staying with you overnight or for an extended period, he or she may enjoy having some time alone. People of cold cultures generally appreciate privacy and/or a private room to sleep in when possible. (I will always remember how a Brazilian friend asked me to stay with her while her husband was away, and then assumed I would sleep in her bed with her. I politely asked if I could stay in the guest room instead. She did not mind my request, but in her warm culture way, she had assumed we'd sleep in the same room and same bed.)
  • It’s good to preface any questions that might be taken as intrusions with words like “Do you have a minute?” or “Is this a good time for a question?” 
  • People of cold cultures may or or may not include family members in invitations to socialize outside the workplace. Be sure to indicate whether spouses and children are also invited to parties you are hosting. 
  • If you are staying with a cold culture hosts, be aware that in cold cultures, hospitality is often seen as something that takes the host’s full attention, whether it is for an afternoon or for days at at time. For this reason, asking to stay with a cold culture host for an extended period of time might sound overwhelming to him or her.

I hope that some of what you have found here will be helpful in your next encounter with a guest or host of a different culture. Even as I edited my notes again today, I thanked God again for His grace which can cover our cultural foibles. I realize how "cold" some of my attitudes must have seemed in warm India, and yet God allowed me to develop deep relationships with Indian friends even with little formal cross-cultural preparation. Tips like these can help, but when your heart is filled with God's love for bringing the stranger in, people will sense that no matter your level of cross-cultural savvy. I thought of Jodie's wise words when she shared about Hospitality to Chinese Muslims

"I think humility in cross-cultural relationships is realizing that we are always capable of making mistakes or being misunderstood, but refusing to let either of those concerns stop us from building relationships anyway."

May these thoughts remind us to be humble and open to other cultures' ways of relating to one another. May they simply help us to express His love more clearly and more understandably to people who are on the outside needing love.