Our weekly sessions throughout the Rockefeller Global Leadership Program did not begin with a sterile lecture. As we shared long hours with our fellow program participants, a diverse group of people from multiple continents, histories, and various socio-economic, racial, gender, and sexuality groups, we did not begin our intercultural interaction with the professional task at hand, per se. Instead of directly diving into our formal educational objectives, every session of ours began in a particular way: together, we ate dinner. When evaluating what the most important tools in building platforms for dialogue across difference are, shared meals are a perhaps overlooked strategy in the field of intercultural studies. However, our weekly dinners in RGLP demonstrate first-hand the connective power of regular shared meals, proven by our deeply diverse cohort casually growing closer as we got to know each other over dinner.
Scholars of various intercultural studies, such as linguists examining what best facilitates language learning (an example of literal intercultural dialogue), have long noted the power of immersion to break the barrier of difference. In other words, repeated exposure to anything different—be it race, socio-economic class, geography, what have you—is a proven path towards increasing the normalization and tolerance of that difference among those experiencing the immersion. This rings true throughout RGLP: as we spent more time together, our cohort got to know each other better. However, particularly in the business or government world in negotiation or labor-intensive contexts, the social barriers of professional expectations can impede this immersion's facilitation of intercultural dialogue for one obvious reason: these interaction's focus on a task at hand. With attention focused on whatever is deemed professionally productive, such as points of disagreement in a negotiation, often tiring labor in collaborative projects, or educational points that can dive into complex technicality, these professional interactions are not only limited in their ability to break intercultural barriers but also risk creating new ones. If exposure to the point of difference, if the crossing of intercultural boundaries, is always only in contexts individuals might deem negative, stressful, or tiring, as people often consider professional labor to be, individuals can form negative associations against those people from different backgrounds that they accomplish those tiring tasks with.
This is where the function of mealtime finds its greatest strength: the removal of professional pressure while still fulfilling a mandatory "productive" need. Mealtime is an inherently social activity: since eating is an activity very friendly to conversation, those sharing meals, regardless of their backgrounds, can find an opportunity to converse, strengthening connections among people with different experiences in an environment removed from the pressures of professional labor. Additionally, the vehicle of unique cultural foods provides a unique opportunity to cross intercultural boundaries through the culinary medium, enabling people of different cultures, no matter how much of a micro-culture those groups may be, to share a sense of participation if they have the opportunity to present their food item to others, building personal histories among all participants, who may feel honored to be included into this previously un-accessed cultural realm. Thanks to these factors, mealtimes are unique activities that can facilitate stronger connections across intercultural boundaries.
Most critically though, unlike other social activities like games, ice-breakers, walks, impromptu conversations, or other venues for socialization, meals are typically different in one essential way: they are mandatory. As a renowned Dartmouth professor once casually elucidated to me, "everyone needs to eat". Unlike other social activities, meals are often one of the last non- work-related time-occupying items on the chopping block when faced by impending professional deadlines as they are a necessary action of biological survival, a "productive" task, if you will, in the sense that they are much more unavoidable than other "optional" activities with social potential that pervade life. This unique intersection—mandatory socialization—is a perfect avenue to facilitate dialogue in spite of difference.
Ultimately, RGLP proved this thesis to be true. Across our dozen or so meals shared across the program, participants had increasingly personal conversations, with myself being included in conversations about the class dynamics of the island of Martha's Vineyard, the difficulties of surmounting South Asian familial expectations of gender roles and the mental health consequences thereof, the non-incompatibility of Christianity and liberalism despite current conceptions of conservative religiosity, and so much more. Conversations over meals with my RGLP co-participants even encouraged me to share how my experience being gay affected my self-image and socialization in a Texas finely walking the rural-urban divide. Thanks to its provision of social opportunities in a familiar and biologically mandatory setting, shared meals are an essential tool to building platforms across intercultural difference. As RGLP continues consciously facilitating the crossing of intercultural boundaries, future cohorts can provide the perfect experimental groups in a potential sociological study to academically prove mealtime's interculturally connective potential.