Mind Your Table Manners
During my angst ridden teenage years, at a point in my life I could have been a character in a J.D. Salinger book, I found employment at a chain restaurant. Believe me when I say, if you are feeling overly analytical, there is no better place to be. Working at a restaurant, especially as a hostess, gives one the opportunity reflect on all of life’s perceived injustices while occasionally having to smile and seat people. After I got over myself, I realized that my job was a great way to interact with people from all walks of life.
What brought on this revelation? One day, while walking around and trying to look busy, I saw an older gentleman eating a salad with his hands. While having an animated conversation with his dining partner he would dip bite-sized pieces of lettuce in the salad dressing (served on the side) then decadently pop them in his mouth like grapes. I’m not joking; his whole salad was consumed in this manner. I know because I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I vaguely remember thinking something along the lines of “all this time I’ve been using a fork like some sort of conformist tool”
After my shift that day I was left wondering about it. Could what he did be considered rude? “Certainly not,” I thought, “it was a practiced maneuver.” He seemed respectable enough, so that left me with another question: Is he from around here? That’s when I started noticing many variations of table manners. As I got to know the customers, it became clear to me that restaurant etiquette had more to do with culture than I had originally thought.
Case and point: from a very early age, I had always been taught it was extremely rude to slurp when eating. Imagine my surprise, when sharing a meal with my Japanese friend’s family, at hearing her parent’s slurp noodles. Loudly. Later she told me that not only was it OK to do this in Japan, her parents had told her as a child that if she didn’t slurp them they wouldn’t taste as good. I wholeheartedly agree and now slurp all noodles, much to my mother’s dismay.
When eating with people of a different culture, a few slip-ups are expected, if not inevitable. After a separate family-dinner occasion I was told by my friend that my chopstick skills were not as good as I thought they were and maybe I should eat with a fork next time to avoid embarrassment. The problem is, when traveling abroad for work, those little mistakes might be enough to cost you some business. Don’t let this happen to you! Study up on the local culture and etiquette before your trip, that way if you need to practice anything ahead of time—eating with chopsticks, for instance—you’ll have plenty of time to do so.
Reading up on the subject of dining etiquette I came across a few interesting rules to keep in mind.
- In Thailand, don’t put food in your mouth with your fork; instead, use it to push food onto your spoon.
- In Japan, never stick your chopsticks upright in your rice. It reminds them of death.
- When dining in Chile, eat everything with utensils; touching food with your hands is considered ill-mannered.
- If salt and pepper aren’t already on the table in Portugal, don’t ask for them, you’ll offend the chef.
- In Ethiopia, individual plates are considered wasteful. Expect to share food from a single plate without the use of cutlery.
- In India, the Middle East, and some parts of Africa, it is considered unclean to eat with your left hand.
- In France, never fill the glass more than half way.
- Men in Russia are expected to down shots in one gulp. Women, however, are allowed to sip.
- When taking a drink in Korea, turn away from those of higher rank than you as a sign of respect. If someone fills your drink, support it with both hands.
Do you know any other interesting food customs? Have you ever suffered a food faux pas? Let me know in the comments.