I have been doing a few 1-2 day cross-cultural training programs for incoming managers and (accompanying spouses) to Italy....and I have run into a reverse cross-cultural moment.
It has to do with lunch -- how Italian.
I spent a day with a couple in Milan, starting VERY promptly at 8:30am and finishing at 5:00pm. Part of the day was dedicated to general cultural awareness, culture shock, managing expectations etc, and another part on cultural differences in the workplace with the working spouse alone. The morning clicked along with a short coffee break.
Then 12:30 rolled around and they accompanied me downstairs to release me, saying, " let's meet back at 1:20" and off they went.
I was meant to eat lunch, ALONE.
Their assumption was that this was my break and that being with them was work, because what else could we possibly talk about over lunch, but work. This was a very short-term professional (work only) relationship and we all needed a break. Maybe I needed to sit over my computer and send email messages while dropping pizzette crumbs on the keyboard.
But I have been in Italy way tooooo long, and I felt as though I had been punched in my empty stomach. I instead had assumed that we would grab a bite together -- actually it had crossed my mind that we might even have a plate of something hot at their home....I thought we might chat about anything and everything BUT the work we had been doing all morning -- about the best places to ski, what I thought of Berlusconi, if they should think about buying a FIAT, what the winters are like in Milan -- ANYTHING. We could have had a nice break together. You know....the "pranzo" thing.
I felt like I must be a terrible person and that they hated me.
Ah yes, cultural differences. They thought they were being very respectful by allowing me time to myself, a work-break. I read it as disrespectful at being thrown out on the streets to fend for myself at a time like lunch!
It is the old personal / professional divide that Americans must work through when they hop over the pond and into Italy (France and Spain too).
While I didn't embarrass them by mentioning the "incident" (although I should have in retrospect..). I did emphasize that M. should never say "no" to a coffee or to lunch with his Italian colleagues and that these small rituals were key to the essential relationship building process that would make or break his successful assignment.
Now I have another 2 day training coming up and the global training company has put in my notes something about "lunch on my own"! The client is British though, so there is hope I will have company for my meal.