The Cocktail Party Question

The Cocktail Party Question


Do you know what your Cocktail Party Question is?

We are deep into party season with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah having just passed and Christmas and the New Year around the corner. Naturally, many of us, regardless of religion, will be meeting new people. This brings me to what I refer to as The Cocktail Party Question – that question we ask when striking up a conversation with someone new and we are trying to get to know them better.  What partygoers may not realize is that the initial questions we choose to ask can provide insights into our own invisible cultures. Since self-awareness is the first step on the path to intercultural awareness, why not look at our own Cocktail Party Questions.

When asking that initial question, many of us are inadvertently assigning status to the people that we meet based solely on what we (either individually or collectively as a society) have learned is good. We all have different backgrounds and because of that, what may seem like a simple and non-offensive question to us could potentially be offensive to someone else. For example, the typical Cocktail Party Question in the U.S. is, “What do you do?” I asked this question to an Australian woman that I met in Japan a while back and learned very quickly that it was offensive to her when she replied:

“Katherine, why do Americans always ask that question? Who cares what I do, what is more important is who I am.”

I thought about it, but I still wanted to know what she did. I come from the land where the slogan, “Just Do It!” was a wild success for a reason.  Here in the U.S. we elevate people based on the actions they take, hence, what you do tells me something about who you are in my world.

Mind you it doesn’t matter if we like the particular action – I might not want to participate in triathlons, but the fact that someone commits to them and spends their time doing something is admirable in my culture. Observing actions allows us as Americans to better process how to organize our thoughts about one another.

It wasn’t until years later as an Interculturalist that I learned that every culture has a way of assigning status to people. Therefore, what may be an appropriate question here in the U.S. may send the wrong message elsewhere and vice versa.

Some cultures people may assign status to your connections, the university to which you went, where you live or the mere fact that you went to university, regardless of where. For some it’s socioeconomics, religion or the number of degrees that you have. There is no end to the ways we assess one another, so there is no end to the number of Cocktail Party Questions you may hear around the world.

Regardless of the measuring stick, each group develops these preferences in response to approval from their communities. The answer to The Cocktail Party Question gives insight into a person’s success, goodness, likeability, and general worthiness of admiration in their own home town, not necessarily another’s.

While living in Singapore I was often asked how much money I made, how much I paid for rent, or how much my jewelry cost. In the U.S. that would be considered highly offensive (although some northern Europeans have complained to me that Americans talk about money too much). I have heard U.S. Americans express disgust at this practice of asking the price of things, but make no mistake – we are all asking the same question, we just have different ways of doing it.

In the U.S. we ask about actions. In France people may ask what university you attended. In Germany you don’t need to ask, you just pass on your business card and all of your degrees are listed right there to tell people of your status. In the U.K. they don’t even need a question because status is immediately established based on a person’s accent, which reveals all sorts of information like origin, locale and education level. Gen Y people may ask about your social networks, which tells them something about the communities to which you choose to belong (a choice few generations have had before).

While I am not an advocate of stereotyping, simple generalizations can act as guidelines to first establishing that there are differences and then taking steps towards respecting them. The goal is not to tolerate one another (which suggests putting up with something we don’t like), but to take it one step further and accept that those differences mean that we come from different places with different values that are supported through intricate reward systems. Once we can establish an environment of respect for differences we can celebrate our diversity and hopefully enjoy the holidays a little bit more.

In memory of Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) who changed our world by accepting our differences, making bold steps toward bringing people together and reconciling the wounds of our past. No words can adequately describe what a great loss this is to South Africa and the rest of the world.