Why Bother With Table Manners When You Travel To Other Countries?
That was the sound all around us.
I had been living in Japan for a few months and one of my roommates at the time was a beautiful blond girl from Carmel California. Let’s call her Jenny.
Jenny was raised like most westerners to believe that you “SHOULD NOT SLURP” and you “SHOULD NOT hold your soup bowl up to your mouth”.
Although Jenny claimed she didn’t want to slurp her noodles because she thought it was disgusting, I think the real reason was that she was self-conscious— We were all pretty young back then, 19 and 20 years old.
Because we were all standing huddled around a street food cart, Jenny was struggling to hold her bowl in one hand and pick up her slipper noodles with her chopsticks using the other hand. They kept slipping off her chopsticks back into the bowl.—she didn’t really know how to use chopsticks.
Meanwhile, my other girlfriends and I were slurping our delicious and savoury Japanese street and loving it. Even the girls who didn’t know how to really use chopsticks were doing ok because they weren’t averse to holding their soup bowls right up to their mouths and slurping their noodles, which by the way, is a much quicker and easier way to eat hot noodles.
We were all pretty much done eating but Jenny didn’t even make a dent in her bowl of noodles and she was feeling more and more self-conscious and anxious and probably hungry.
Adapt, adopt, and overcome “or suffer”
Jenny never did adapt to the food, the etiquette or the culture. She ended up returning home shortly after that having had a terrible experience. As for me, I stayed in Japan for a little over 3 years—loving every second of it.
7 surprising & Strange Table Manners From Around The World
If you don’t try to adapt to the local food customs of your host country, you’re missing out and or could end up like my friend Jenny.
The point I’m trying to make is that eating among the locals is going to be one of the most memorable parts of your trip.
Your experiences with the food will give you as much insight into a foreign culture as say going to see the local sites of that country so you had better adapt!
With that said, here are some table manners from around the world which you might find peculiar.
1- Never, ever leave your chopsticks sticking vertically in a bowl of rice
Growing up, my mother used to tell me it was bad luck to stick your chopsticks into your rice. Even to this day, if I see someone sticking their chopsticks in their rice bowl, I have to hold back the urge to grab them and lay them flat on their bowl or plate.
This belief that sticking your chopsticks into your rice when not in use is believed in many Asian countries including Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, China and Korea to name a few. And the reason it’s considered taboo is that, during funerals, bowls of rice with chopsticks sticking straight out of them are offered to the dead. Passing food between chopsticks is also taboo because this is how the bone ashes are transferred to an urn or bone pot.
2- Slurping is good
One of my favourite things about Asian food is noodles. Pho, ramen, Udon, Soba, Pad thai….I could go on.
As I mentioned in my story about Jenny in the beginning of this article, slurping noodles in Japan is considered polite. It’s also an indication that the food is good. You’ll probably look weirder for not slurping your noodles.
But be careful, slurping is not considered polite in all Asian cultures. In Thailand and in parts of China it is accepted to slurp but not really encouraged.
Know before you go.
#3- Should you finish all the food on your plate?
You might be surprised to learn that in some cultures, finishing all your food on your plate is a sign that your host didn’t provide you with enough food and in many cases, your host will continue to serve you each time you clear your plate and drink your entire beverage.
Filipinos, Cambodians, Koreans, Egyptians and Thais will all think this. For Japanese people, finishing one’s plate and rice bowl signifies to the host that the meal is complete and that you appreciate the meal.
When in doubt, observe what other people are doing.
#4- Is it ever polite to fart after a meal?
Articles have been circulating around the web that the Inuit people of Canada fart after a meal to express thanks and appreciation after a meal.
As interesting as this sounds, I could find no proof of this whatsoever. I included it on my list but I’m calling bull shit on this one.
5- Yes, You should Belch and Burp:
As strange as it may sound, burping is not considered rude in certain parts of India, China and in Bahrain- A small island country located in the Middle East, just south of Kuwait.
Burping after a meal can be a sign of appreciation and satiety.
6- Don’t Cut Your Salad With A Knife In France!
Just as you were probably told from an early age to never put your elbows on the table, most French parents teach their children to never cut their salad.
If the leaves in your salad are too large to comfortably put in your mouth, you should gently fold the salad leaves with your knife and fork into a little portion that can be picked up with your fork.
Why is it impolite to cut your salad leaves?
The ironic thing about this French table manner is that most French people have no idea why it’s considered proper etiquette to not cut your salad, however, there is a very practical reason which dates back to a time when knives were made of ordinary steel or iron instead of the stainless steel knives we use today.
Because steel and Iron knives tend to react by tarnishing from vinaigrette or citric juices of the salad dressing, cooks or the person preparing the meal would cut the salad into bite-size pieces before serving guests so the person dining would not need to cut their salad. (source in French) The knives were also known to discolour or brown the edge of the cut lettuce.
If the cook saw you cutting your salad after it was served to you, it meant he/she didn’t cut the salad properly and voila a table manner is born.
Do people follow the “no salad cutting etiquette” in France?
In a practical or everyday setting, people in France do in fact cut their salad from time to time. This is from my personal observations eating out in France and at the homes of my friends.
So what’s the right answer?
Keeping your elbows off the table and putting your napkin in your lap is considered proper etiquette in many cultures but people don’t always follow these rules of good manners. The same is true of cutting your salad in France. It’s considered proper etiquette to refrain from cutting your salad leaves but people still do it.
If eating out in a fancy restaurant or if you’re invited to someone’s home to eat in France and your not sure what to do, just use the folding method. You can’t go wrong.
7- Use your spoon, not your fork to eat in Thailand
Have you ever gone to a fancy restaurant and weren’t sure which fork to use first?
Fear not. It’s the fork furthest from your plate.
In Thai culture, the fork is not used to shovel food in your mouth. In fact, it never goes in your mouth, or rarely goes in your mouth. Instead, the spoon is the main utensil and it’s usually held in your right hand while the fork is used like a rake to push food from your plate onto your spoon.
You may, however, use your fork to eat anything that is not served with rice like fruit. Got it?
As far as knives go, Thai dishes are usually already in bite size pieces or easy to cut with a fork, such as fish so you usually won’t find or need a knife at a Thai table.
Chopsticks are usually for stand-alone noodle dishes in Thailand, not for rice dishes.
In the northern provinces of Thailand, where sticky rice is predominantly served, you can use your fingers. Simply take a clump of rice in your hand and compress it with your fingers using it to pick up food and sauces.
During the Renaissance period in Europe, there were no forks. The custom of using forks began in Italy but it took a while for it to catch on. Forks were initially viewed almost to a fault as excessively refined. In the case of men, it was even considered a sign of effeminacy. Even then, only the wealthy could afford them throughout the 17th century.
Don’t take these rules too seriously
Just as you don’t adhere to all the table manner you were taught to follow, not everyone in other countries adheres to their table manner rules 100% either.
When in doubt, look around and see what other people are doing and just follow suit.
Even better, just ask someone. Most people will understand you are in a foreign land and happily help you understand their culture.
And the next time you’re sitting next to someone who slurps at the table, just smile and feel happy that you know, they’re showing their appreciation for their meal.