I blogged about this in 2005 but, after looking back at the post, I may not have explained it very well. And that was eight years ago, so I think the statute of limitations has expired for me to blog about it again.
I’m watching the wacky Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy “Top Secret!”, starring Val Kilmer in his first starring role, right now on VH1 Classic. It’s delightfully silly and tasteless, and I don’t know that the movie itself has any messages or lessons. But the directors’ commentary on the DVD includes a great anecdote which I’ve actually used in mission trip training to talk about cultural differences and misunderstandings.
The great Omar Sharif appears in the first few minutes of “Top Secret!”, and he’s a wonderful sport, getting things sprayed on him and squirted at him and so on. With all due respect to Robert Stack, Sharif was easily the biggest star that Z/A/Z had worked with at that point in their young careers, and they wanted to thank him for what he’d done for the movie. So they invited him out to dinner at the end of his last day of shooting. They made a reservation at the most expensive restaurant in London, where the movie was shot, and the three of them waited for him to arrive.
He never showed up, and the directors enjoyed an expensive meal which they’d never have paid for just to treat themselves. They later discovered that Sharif had already checked out of his hotel and was on the plane home at the time of their dinner reservations.
Eventually, a mutual friend asked Sharif about the incident. He explained that in Egyptian culture, it is always considered rude to decline an invitation, even if you are unwilling or unable to attend. Even though he knew his plane reservations would prevent him from going to dinner, he accepted the invitation out of what, for him, was good manners.
And before you go clucking your tongue, there are certainly American customs or expectations that seem just as mysterious to people from other cultures. Every culture has its own assumptions and mores and etiquette and expectations, and when you travel to, or welcome visitors from, another culture, there are almost bound to be misunderstandings and confusion. The best you can do is try to be aware and step carefully.