We are all travelers. At least until we choose to stop exploring our world’s extraordinary splendors and doing battle against the injustice and brutality it contains. Our travels, for pleasure or cause, in our local communities or in distant lands, bring us in contact with other people, most of whom are not like us in the sense that they do not reflect the same interests, backgrounds, hopes, desires, or motivations. This gap is most frequently bridged by the tradition of offering a drink of water to the weary traveler. After water, tea is the beverage of choice in most places around the globe.

The serving of tea or the accepting of a cup by the uninitiated, however, is full of potential diplomatic errors and distasteful stomach-wrenching experiences. A host from Morocco (the red fez should prepare you), calling his beverage a “whiskey”, will hand you a decorative shot glass filled to the brim with extra-sweet hot tea brewed from a mixture of green tea leaves and green mint leaves. The British host will serve and expect black tea with warm milk and just a touch of sugar in a fine bone China cup sitting in its own saucer. The tradition-leaning corporate executive from China, wanting to emphasize his own pleasant and non-aggressive character, will typically choose green tea leaves to produce a low-keyed and lukewarm brew and serve it in a highly decorated porcelain cup that can be finished in one gulp and, when empty, is expected to be filled incessantly over the next few hours. Sharing a cup with a banker from the midwest in America will get you cold tea with ice cubes in a tall glass and a spoon to stir in any number of sugar cubes you like. The expat from India will usually boil the black tea leaves along with milk, cardamom pods, and fennel seeds and serve it all in generous helpings in a utensil of your liking or an earthenware pot with no handles. The orthodox Jew and residents of the Mediterranean will serve hot lemon tea to recognize their kosher preference and the historical scarcity of milk.

With 200 million people, or 3% of the world’s population, estimated to be living in cities outside their home countries, the offer to serve and accept tea can be a cause of concern for both the host and the traveler. Maybe the solution is the one my Australian host in Singapore adopted as the late-night poker game was coming to an end, when he asked room service to take the tea orders from the players who were born in Argentina, America, Britain, China, Germany, and India, none of whom were living and working in the country of their birth.

Or, maybe we should watch more movies to learn from them. I’m sure you recall the three-question exchange in The Da Vinci Code between the American symbologist Robert Langdon (portrayed by Tom Hanks) and Leigh Teabing (played by Sir Ian McKellen). After choosing to have some tea, Robert responds to Leigh’s second question “With milk or lemon?” by answering “That would depend on the tea.”

Or, recognize the differences in our tea habits and do as a stranger I met in Madrid did.  He was born and brought up in Johannesburg, was working in Madrid for an Irish multinational non-profit, and had a great-grandfather who had migrated from India and married a British officer’s daughter.  His question, “What kind of tea would you like?”, sparked a three-hour conversation and tea-tasting session in his home for this traveler.

Relaxing in the comfort of business class on the flight home, I reminisced at the ease with which the question, “What kind of tea would you like?”, had sparked a never-ending conversation that revealed all kinds of common ground between two strangers. Over the years, this tiny change in hospitality has helped me achieve Dale Carnegie’s goal of easing the way to make friends and influence people from all around the world.

This article by Ajay Bhatla was originally published to T Ching in February of 2009.

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