The Cross-Cultural Power of Food: Casualness Breeds Comfort
Food is an important context for global and cross-cultural understanding. It is both highly global, as it is consumed worldwide, yet highly local, as there are significant variation in food across countries and cultures.
Courtney Messinger was in her last semester in the MA-HRIR program before graduating in 2016. It was her final chance to study overseas, so she jumped at the opportunity. She chose New Zealand because she wanted to break out of her comfort zone. “New Zealand is one of those countries that you don’t really hear much about,” she says. “I wanted to limit how much information I exposed myself to before going so that I could form my own opinions—and so I could gain a more objective view about the U.S.”
One of the first things she noticed while dining out in her new home was that nine times out of 10, you order at the counter, and water is self-served. “Sometimes I would sit down and wait for someone to bring me water and take my order only to watch the next customer come in and get their order in, grab water, and sit at a table,” she says.
This custom plays into what Messinger noticed about New Zealand’s culture overall—its casual nature. “There are more formal events, but for the most part, casual is the norm,” she says. “That made for some interesting observations of people’s attire at dining facilities. Being barefoot is an acceptable thing, as is mixing loud patterns. You could see someone in a suit next to a table of university students in shorts and with bright hair.”
"At the end of the day, food is a reason to come together and connect with others," says Courtney Messinger, '16 MA-HRIR
The casualness breeds comfort. “I learned that food is comforting,” Messinger says. “The Maori have hangi pies—meat and potatoes—and seafood is common because of New Zealand being surrounded by the ocean. At the end of the day, food is a reason to come together and connect with others. It’s taught me to think outside the box when it comes to eating and to really enjoy the eating experience—who you’re with, what they ordered, and how eating with one another sustains a relationship.”
Like the U.S., New Zealand is a melting pot, so much of its food has external influences, particularly Asia, which was another surprise to Messinger. “There weren’t too many foods typically associated with New Zealand, other than a dessert called pavlova,” she says. “Sushi was everywhere and Indian is popular.”
Messinger notes that it is common in New Zealand, as well as in neighboring Australia, to connect with coworkers over drinks and dinner after work and use food as a way to share time with one another. She finds this a valuable takeaway. “It may be a standard thing to do, but you still feel included and liked as your dining counterpart wants to spend time with you, so I will be more mindful of using meals as a way to get to know people,” she says.
Overall, Messinger finds the experience has given her a more global mindset in general. “This experience has taught me that we can all coexist, no matter our differences, opinions, and behaviors so long as we respect one another and come from a place of understanding and consideration,” she says.