While I was in grad school, I had a classmate who tried to explain to me some nuances of his culture. I still cannot remember the exact rules, but if I ever visit his country, I'll be in trouble because I'll misinterpret things unintentionally.
Here in the States we'll say something like, "Yeah, we should get together sometime," to express that we enjoy the person's company, but we're not really picking a day to hang out just yet. Apparently, where he comes from, people will say, "Yes, come by tomorrow!" but not actually expect the person to show up. I would show up. Or, if I were the one inviting someone over, I'd have refreshments ready, and then wonder why the person never arrived.
There are similar expectations about gifts: he would give someone a gift, but then they are supposed to refuse it. I wonder what happens if you really, truly want to give someone a present that you want them to keep?
Yesterday my son hosted one of his friends for lunch. Over and over again before the date arrived, his mother asked to pay for lunch. Originally she was going to bring food for us, but I insisted that the invitation was for us to feed her son. Her son showed up with money, and told me he was expected to pay. I again refused, and told him that it really, truly is our treat!
Well, after dropping our guest back off with his mom, I received a text message saying that she wants to give me a pearl necklace, and wanted to know if an 18-inch strand would be acceptable, or if I required a different length.
I wasn't sure how to respond, since I don't know the rules. I choose a simple, "That's very generous of you!" but didn't bother to specify my preferred strand length, since I wanted to keep things vague, indicating I wasn't demanding specific things of her. After all, I didn't know whether I was supposed to completely refuse (as I had about the lunch multiple times) or whether I should just give in.
After several requests from her for my specific requirements, I simply said "Thank you, 18 sounds perfect!"
I'm uncomfortable. I'm really uncomfortable. And yet, I get the feeling that she was probably uneasy that I paid for her son's lunch. I meant her no offense in paying for our guest, and yet clearly she felt a transaction had to be made, as if she "owed" me something. Otherwise, why give me a pearl necklace?
Or, was I supposed to continue to refuse over and over again? Is the dance of generosity a competition for who can ultimately owe the other more? I don't understand.
And so, instead of feeling happiness that my son and his friend had lunch together, I feel frustrated and uncomfortable. It was a difficult fight to finally pay for the lunch, and now I'm going to have a piece of jewelry that will last much longer than the meal sat in her son's tummy.
And - I wonder for this and future "transactions" if it is more offensive to say "no" or more offensive to say "yes."
If the mother in question happens to read this post, please understand that it is truly our pleasure to host your son. Gifts are not necessary in return, and since I do not understand the expectation, I do not know whether I'm offending you unintentionally.