Shelbi Polk: Healthy Tension

Honors Students away from campus for study abroad, co-ops, or internships are encouraged to write about their experiences to share them with the Honors community. Below is  Shelbi Polk’s  ’15 reflection on her study abroad in Paris.

By Shelbi Polk –

I have never in my life enjoyed doing the dishes. That is not to say I dread it, as washing up can even be pleasant with the right company. There is always a certain satisfaction that comes at the end of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners when the whole family comes together to clean up. After we have gathered and enjoyed together, we all join in the cleaning process, and it is never too dreary with cousins joking in the background. Usually though, washing the dishes is a chore I undertake out of obligation towards whoever was nice enough to make dinner for me, not for the pure joy of it.

So naturally, on my first night in a French home, I began to start clearing the dishes when we finished eating. It has always been expected in my own home that we help clear the table, and I wanted to show my host mother that I had enjoyed the meal. I also just really wanted to help by assisting in the cleaning process. My poor host mother was absolutely scandalized. My roommate and I were guests, she insisted, and guests did not take any part in the cleaning process.

I smiled and nodded of course, but I knew this routine. The hostess tells the guest not to bother, and the guest very politely fights to clean everything they can in order to show their appreciation of the meal. Well, evidently that scene was written in America, and the French have a very different version. Guests truly do not lift a finger, much less enter the kitchen to help. I had, in fact, offended my sweet host mother by simply piling the dirty plates. She kindly informed us that such a move was truly rude, and that it indicated that the guest had liked the meal so little that they wanted it to be taken away early.

That was not at all what I had wanted to communicate to my host mother. She’d made us an amazing meal of traditional French food and I sincerely just wanted to help. I was naturally horrified to learn that the very way in which I had tried to show my appreciation for the meal had communicated the opposite. Of course, I quickly apologized and explained that it was a gesture intended to be helpful and appreciative, and my host mom was very graceful about it all.

Since then, our dinners together have been lovely. There are quite a few places that French table etiquette differs from American, and it has been a process figuring out where all the differences lie. But that process of discovery has been characteristic of much of my life here, and the process of adapting has been both great and challenging in many ways. I have gained, as I hope all study abroad students do, even more respect for my host country than I had before and learned a ton about flexibility at the same time. Living abroad forces people to adjust to many different things by its very nature. Previously held ideas about how the world must work, from dinner etiquette to much bigger things, are challenged by the friction that living abroad produces. I have found that this friction is not always a bad thing. Having an idea challenged can either strengthen your convictions or help you see a better, or equally good way to do things.

Shelbi Polk '15 and her friend Adrienne pose in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris
Shelbi Polk ’15 and her friend Adrienne pose in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris

I know that if I do get the chance to live abroad again, I will adjust more quickly and even more easily to life in a different culture than I have this round because of my experiences here. I also think that I will be able to take this attitude home. It is easy to assume that people all do things the same way, especially within the same country, but that is not true. One of the most beautiful things about the United States is that it is a country made up of so many different cultures. Our neighbors are so often different from us in ways that we do not even realize. I have definitely become more sensitive to different cultures, and that will not change. And next time I am told not to do the dishes, whether that be in America or abroad, I will definitely listen a little more.

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