Sunday, March 23, 2008

i realize the system is flawed if dinner involves eating pig knuckles

I woke up this morning at 7:45am and couldn't sleep, so I'm going to write about a predicament.

Chinese culture has various protocols. For example, let's say you're eating dinner at a restaurant with others.

Host: "Try this duck. It's great!"

One typical response is to demur out of courtesy.

You: "That's all right, you go ahead."

The problem is that people will say this even when they actually secretly want to eat the duck. Therefore, the expected response is for the host to redouble his efforts.

Host: "Really, taste the duck! [picking up a piece of duck, and leaning over to place it into your bowl]

You: [covering bowl with one hand] "Don't worry about me! You just take care of yourself. I'll be fine."

Host: "I insist!" [forcibly wedging duck past your hand into your bowl]

Now, the problem here is that even if you legitimately don't want the duck, there is no way to communicate this. Any refusal will be taken as courtesy.

You: "Oh my fucking God, please stop shoving this piece of duck into my bowl! Can you respect my free will!"

Host: "Why are you being so polite?" (Unfortunately this is not sarcastic.)

You could come up with an excuse, e.g. "I'm allergic to duck", "I just ate duck for lunch", "I'm vegetarian". But this wastes time, and would also be dishonest. Clearly the script needs to be amended.

What we need is a safe word. Something like "pig knuckles". Then you can distinguish situations where you genuinely want to say no.

You: "Can we put my backpack in your car trunk?"

Host: "Sure! [opens trunk which is packed full, starts rearranging items]"

You: "I didn't realize you had so much stuff in there. I'll just hold it on my lap."

Host: "No, that would be uncomfortable for you! Let me make this more compact. [folding clothes, collapsing boxes]"

You: "I changed my mind! I just want to go, okay?"

Host: "It'll only be another couple -- "

You: "Pig knuckles."

Host: [closes trunk, gets into driver's seat, starts engine]


Ah, that would be magical.


Anonymous said...

I never win with my MIL, so I just take it at first offer....she offers the best piece of lobster tail...I take it! HA!

ArC said...

"i realize the system is flawed if dinner involves eating pig knuckles"

And in fact, pig knuckles are delicious. Maybe 'hog anus' would have a lower likelihood of inadvertent confusion.

Matthew said...

It doesn't have to be a meaningful bigram to make a good, uh, let's call it a "politeness safeword."

So we could go with, for example, "Saskatchewan otaku".

That way you won't accidentally be served some pork knuckles, if you're on a business trip to Germany or Research Triangle.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be using the F-word a lot more in your blog posts these days. :)

Phaedrusalt said...

Try saying, slowly and with as much 'gravitas' as possible, "No, I really don't WANT any duck". It's important to say this while imagining that you are actually saying "Bring the duck any closer and you'll be pooping duck next week!". The seriousness will come across, trust me.

Philipp Lenssen said...

In wrestling matches do they have a word for when it really hurts? Perhaps we could reuse.

Strider Aragorn said...

The system works fine until it catches on and people start using it. Then, once it became a common saying, you'll end up back at the beginning. You'll say the secret word, the host assumes you're just being polite and then insists further. Thus will the circle of life continue forever until we get sick of each other and blow ourselves up.

Anonymous said...

Comment moderation has been enabled. All comments must be approved by the blog author.

Time to find a new site where comments are not edited by the dictator :-)

x said...

The infinite courtesy loop frustrates me. I'm doing my part to break out of this ludicrous tradition by using the guideline of "relinquish efforts after the second consecutive insistence."


[Paying for dinner]
Host: I'm treating you.
Me: No, I'll get it.
Host: No, don't be so polite!
Me: Done. Thanks for dinner.

On the other hand... "pig knuckles" seems like it could be fun, and might be the adaptation of a new-age "Penis!" game :p

John K. Lin said...

I always hated when my parents fought over the check with their Chinese friends when we went out to eat for dinner - everyone fighting over the check to "save face."

bene said...

But a safeword takes all the fun out of creative and complimentary refusals! "I understand the duck is fantastic, but my taste is not as attenuated to the subtleties as yours. Would you describe the flavors to me?"
A safeword is also like a cellphone - allowing you to change your mind. "Since I have hitchhiked extensively, I prefer to keep my backpack at my knees. The physical contact reassures me that my belonging are safe."
Finally, a safeword is an easy escape, allowing you to kludge yourself out of a situation made ambiguous by initial framing, instead of preemptively identifying and eliminating the conflict either by getting more information:
"Is your trunk very full?"
Or providing clear intent:
"I am quite excited by ~dish~ and do not want to mix flavors"
But then again, I take most things at face value, 'cause it's easier for me that way.

Joanna said...

Why the complexity? A punch in the face will do the trick.

ArC said...

"The system works fine until it catches on and people start using it. Then, once it became a common saying, you'll end up back at the beginning."

Simple fix: don't let people devalue the trump phrase.

Next, I'll detail how to fix procrastination and other flaws of human nature. It's just that easy!

mahlen said...

At a neighbor's Chinese New Year party, I was told that you need to refuse things eight times before the offerer will act accordingly. An inefficient protocol, I admit. Perhaps, Niniane, you're giving up too easily. Or you need a device to help count off the number of refusals.

I like the idea of a safe word. I especially like that a notion from sadomasochist practice (that is the origin of the term "safe word") could become a principle of etiquette. What's next, handkerchief codes to indicate what programming languages you're proficient in? :)


Anonymous said...

In Ireland, generally, people assume that if you refuse more than three times you really don't want it. Though they can be pretty persistent

KE Liew said...

Good view on the negative aspect of it.

But hey, the flip side is, one won't learn/know what patience means, nor acceptance, nor tolerance, nor meekness, nor adaptability, nor respect.

I guess that's why there's such a difference in western and eastern culture in many different levels. Also a potential reason why East still have high values and morals as supposed to the West in varying degrees.

InWantOfBeingMe said...

The trick is you take your plate and extend it as far away as possible, so that the host can't reach it.

Then he won't have a choice and remember to keep a smile on your face all the time :)

Anonymous said...

@ke liew

First you talk about respect and after that you say bad things about Western culture.

You are the one who doesn't have respect!

KE Liew said...


Since when pointing out flaws a form of disrespect? It is in a way, but not always. And in no way do I disrespect any environment and culture that doesn't demoralise a society.

Don't jump to conclusions.