“Be my guest!”
It’s the kind of polite statement you hear from local merchants all the time if you are a foreigner or even a respectful local.
The merchant running a small sandwich shop or chai stand says this, seemingly with their whole heart. However, what seems to be a generous and hospitable offer actually turns out to be a place ripe for cross-cultural offense.
I once had a coworker who ordered a pizza for delivery. When the delivery driver arrived he was surprised to find out that the customer was an American. His honorable reflexes kicked in and when he handed over the pizza he told the American to put his money away.
“Be my guest!”
The American, wowed at this turn of good fortune, smiled, thanked the driver profusely, took the pizza, and closed the door.
The driver stood at the door for a minute, stunned.
He walked back to his delivery scooter, paused, and then came back to the door, full of embarrassment.
The American opened the door, surprised to see the driver again.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” the driver said, “If I don’t bring back the money from this pizza, I will lose my job!”
“Why didn’t you say so!” responded the American. And he promptly paid up.
Consider also some recent YouTube videos of a young Western travel blogger who visited one of our local cities. “Everyone is so nice here!” she exclaimed. “They all keep giving me free stuff!”
We cringed as we watched this video. While some of the free street food offered wouldn’t be a big deal, we also knew that many of the merchants would later be grumbling about the rude foreigner who actually took them up on their merely rhetorical offer. And ninety nine percent of the time, that’s exactly what it is: rhetorical and hypothetical.
In a highly-verbal honor/shame culture, public displays of hospitality and generosity (or at least displays of intent) are very important. But the whole system gets jammed up when those on the receiving end don’t know that in order to be honorable themselves, they need to politely and profusely refuse these repeated offers.
It’s like a dance. You offer me a free kabob. I turn down the offer and thank you. We go back and forth a few times. The merchant almost always wants and needs the customer to pay for the kabob. But every once in a while, the merchant keeps on and keeps on insisting. At which point both parties understand that it is now honorable to take him up on his gift kabob.
Why not save some time and just take the money? Welcome to Central Asia. Where honor is still way more important than time.
Why not just say what you mean? Well, the local would contend that he is saying what he means. But you are supposed to understand that while he means he is technically willing to do it, you still need to respect him by not letting him do it. He really means it… hypothetically.
While it’s a little more extreme over here, every culture has something like this. When we were still living in the US, it was, “Let’s get coffee some time!” Such an offer from a Westerner shows a friendly politeness. An appropriate response is, “Yes, that would be great sometime!” But if you pull out your calendar right away, it’s likely to get awkward.
A word of advice to Westerners traveling in the Middle East or Central Asia (and Melanesia for that matter). Be very slow to accept gifts from strangers, no matter how sincere they seem. While they genuinely mean for you to be their guest, they often don’t mean this literally.
Be their hypothetical guest, and all will save face.