Saturday, April 22, 2006

What Are You Having?

Quick, answer the following question:

When you ask someone you're eating with in a restaurant what they're having, this is

a) out of idle curiosity
b) in order to avoid the embarrassment of ordering the same thing

I would answer b), and until a few months ago I would have thought of this as common sense. Apparently, though, it isn't. What brought about this realization was a recent incident in a restaurant with a group of people who all decided to order the same thing. Someone at the table said to me, "Hey, Positive, I bet you're dying of embarrassment right now." Which I was. Everyone wondered both how she knew, and why I would be embarrassed, while I wondered why they had no manners. You see, the person who knew I was embarrassed was a fellow Chicagoan, and was equally embarrassed, but had previously realized that this was a little-known instance of regionalism. I was skeptical, but some casual asking around has basically confirmed this, that Chicagoans find it embarrassing to order the same thing as someone else at a restaurant, whereas no one else cares.

My interest in American dialects stems from a general interest in regionalism and cultural diversity. I have a theory that is too vague to be testable (the best kind) that accounts for why people assume that American culture is becoming homogenized, while linguists are observing dialect divergence. My theory is that localisms are being subsumed by broader regionalims, which are diverging. The fact that I could have a strong cultural taboo, one that I had never heard articulated, moreover, that the people I was eating with (among them my wife) were ignorant of shows that such cultural differences are at least plausible. If this were really to conform to my theory, then this taboo must be more widespread than just Chicago. Have you encountered this taboo? Do you yourself have it? Is it the craziest thing you've ever heard of?

What strikes me is that even though most non-Chicagoans I've asked don't know about this taboo, everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of asking, "What are you having?"


argotnaut said...

I do have it, but I think it's just for the sake of efficiency. If three people order three different things, you can see which dish is best, and order that one the next time.

Queenie said...

i find it embarrassing *unless* the dish is widely known to be spectacular.

the chocolate lady said...

I have never heard of such a taboo in a life largely devoted to hearing such things, and while it is not the craziest thing I have ever heard, it is surely among the top twenty.

I would ask you what you are going to order not because I would be embarrassed to get the same thing, but because I am going to taste your food, and I want to maximize tasting opportunities.

I am aware that tasting others' food is taboo by some folks, but I don't think this is along strictly regional lines. Now *that's* crazy.

~J said...

I wasn't aware of the taboo. But for what it is worth I'm a Chicagoan who always feels a bit odd when I'm with dinner and people are ordering the same thing, unless that thing has a very good reputation (then that makes sense but it still feels weird). I agree with some of the above posters though in my general belief that everyone should order something different so we can all taste each others food.

Ben said...

So I feel like so far your comments fit my friend's observation that there is a geographic correlation to this taboo: there is one Chicagoan who has the taboo, one who claims not to, but still "feels a bit odd" ordering the same thing, which counts in my book, a northern Illinoisan who sort of has it, and a New Yorker who has never heard of the taboo, and finds it crazy. I think it has emerged clearly, too, that there is a practical cause underlying this taboo, namely that ordering different things allows people to taste eachothers' food, and that if a place is known for its risotto, poutine or frog legs, then two Chicagoans may both order the risotto, poutine or frog legs.

Argotnaut -

Efficiency aside, do you feel weird ordering the same thing as someone else?

Chocolate Lady -

I agree; the anti-sharing thing is mystifying. I suspect that it's related to germ phobia.

~j -

I suppose I wasn't 'aware' of the taboo, either, except that like you I "felt a bit odd" or even embarrassed to order the same thing as someone else. I guess that's how some taboos are - you don't need to be conscious of them to have them.

~J said...

You know, now that I think about it, I cannot count how many times I've changed what I had intended to order at the last minute because someone else ordered it and I didn't want to order the same thing.

MM said...

I was born and raised in Chicago and now again reside in my natal city. I was until moments ago unaware of any such taboo. Perhaps this belies a certain social awkwardness that I might (or might not) be comfortable anonymously confessing, or perhaps it simply demonstrates a loyalty to the logic of maximizing tastes that prevents order overlap.
I am a free spirit and want my own item, yet I am true to myself and will order what I want, even if someone beats me to it. What a conundrum. But seriously, I have never heard of this as a taboo before!

Fesser said...

Having lived in Chicago for five years, I do not think it is a specifically Chicago thing. I think it varies according to your notion of what eating out with friends involves. Attending college in St. Louis, I recall being scolded for ordering a duplicate item at a Chinese restaurant by my NY/NJ Jewish friends, who IDed it as especially WASPY behavior. I think it depends on the nature of the food and the nature of the group.

Ben said...

MM -

I'm glad you're such a free spirit! But the fact you put it in those terms implies, I believe, that you've "freed yourself" from this taboo, even if you didn't know it existed.

Fesser -

Chinese restaurants are a completely different story. I was in fact brought up to think of even ordering a dish for myself (as opposed to for the whole table) at a Chinese restarant was uncultured. I'm curious, though, where this custom of sharing, and being required to share, at a Chinese restaurant comes from, and how wide spread it is. Those lazy susans are pretty ubiquitous.

Pyewacket said...

I have never heard of this. I am aware that some people don't order the same thing to maximize sharing, and I would do that if I was eating with someone with whom I would expect to share (my boyfriend, eg), at a place we don't get to often. But, generally, I would say the idea of a "taboo" on ordering the same thing sound crazy. I'm from New England.

I would agree about the Chinese restaurants, though, because generally people order family-style. You only double up on a dish if it's so good there's concern there won't be enough for everyone. I do find it weird to eat at Chinese restaurants with people who expect to order just one dish for themselves - acually, I only remember this happening once.

Pyewacket said...

Oh, and I ask what people are ordering to open up the conversation about food, of course!

the chocolate lady said...

I think what is most embarrassing is the fact one is eating at all. This explains both the sharing taboo and the ordering-the-same-thing taboo, since both practices call attention to the scandalous fact that we are actually going to put things in our mouths.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett reports in Destination Culture that young women, for most of the last two centuries were advised to eat invisibly (the term comes from a book published in 1941!). Strategies for invisible eating included breaking off pieces of bread and eating them rather than leaving lascivious toothmarks in one's toast for all to see.

Ben said...

Wow, this turned out to be lively!

Invisible eating, eh? What a world...

V Smoothe said...

I always try to avoid having people at my table order duplicate meals in order to maximize sharing and taste everything.

My mother, however, who is from Connecticut, does get embarassed about ordering the same thing as someone else, and will frequently change her order to something she wants less if someone else at the table picked the same meal as she did.

She also has bizarre issues with "copying" anyone. When I'm home, she won't wear black, because she thinks it's weird to have both women in our party wearing the same color. She loves my cookware, but won't buy it for herself because "that's [my] thing." If I have a sweater, a watch, or a purse she likes and I encourage her to buy one, she insists that she doesn't want us to "look like twins." Nevermind that she lives thousands of miles away from me and we see each other maybe twice a year. It's possible that she's just a freak.

Ben said...

I'm gonna go with the 'freak' explanation. Nothing against your mother, of course, but this allows me to disregard this bit of data that doesn't fit my theory. Man, being unscientific is fun!

argotnaut said...

It _feels_ like efficiency/tasting is my motivation, but I can't guarantee that my brain isn't just coming up with that excuse to appease me.

eve said...

A few more reasons to ask what others are having:
1) to figure out how soon you have to decide;
2) to guage what kind of wine to get (did someone say this?);
3) to find out if anyone is eating appetizers;
4) to find out what price range people are eating in;
5) if there are several things on the menu that say they'll take a while, to find out if anyone's ordering one;
6) occasionally, to switch my order TO what someone else is having. What if I have 2 favorite choices, and then she takes one of them and I take the other and I turn out to be jealous of her meal? No joke; I've done this.

Ben said...

Argotnaut -

Isn't it funny how nebulous these feelings are when we try to examine them?

F-V -

Heck of a list there. Did someone say "to gauge what kind of wine to get," you ask? I believe that Wachtel fellow did. As for the food jealousy thing, I've been there. In one of their books Penn and Teller have a trick where you pretend to be doing some other trick that involves the other person closing their eyes and concentring, and you meanwhile eat their superior food.