During more than three decades of diplomatic service, I have greatly enjoyed exploring different cultures and societies and in turn sharing with them the “odd” things Americans do. Of course, unique or similar (but rarely if ever the same) holiday celebrations were among those sharing experiences. But among the most consistently challenging American events to bring across the cultural threshold have been the “Open House” party and the “Town Hall” meeting. Let me say up front that I have obviously not served everywhere and that are some countries where one or the other of these two forms of getting people together are similar. But from Latin America to Western and Eastern Europe in my experience, the two concepts were not routinely in the local vocabulary or practice.
An “Open House,” such as my wife and I will once again be hosting at our home this coming Christmas for our Estonian and American colleagues and friends, is a warm, informal, and uncomplicated way of hosting and enjoying some holiday good cheer without the pressures of coming on time, a formal receiving line, or dressing appropriately. The house is literally open for several hours for guests to come and stay as long or as briefly as they wish to enjoy a relaxing time with us and in each others company.
The “Town Hall” — literally of course a seat of local government — is in this case a short form for a meeting open to a large number of people, regardless of rank or position, to discuss issues of common interest with each other and a principal figure, be it a president, school principal, or ambassador. Participation by a maximum number of attendees is key. Format is not. While common courtesy and respect for divergent views is most important, everyone gets to voice an opinion and anyone gets to speak. The idea, again, is to discuss issues in a non-threatening and informal atmosphere that encourages interaction and engagement by folks, including those who are normally more reserved. It can get a little messy and loud at times, but it can be a great catalyst for dialog.
If you are not an American and are invited to either one of these two types of events, watch us among each other and go with the flow and break into the conversation. It may feel a bit foreign at first, but it grows on you quickly.