Table Manners Around the Globe article
You know that scene in the Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast, when Belle is finally allowed out of her dungeon and into the main castle, and she eats her first meal with the Beast? Belle primly and properly doses her oatmeal with a spoonful of sugar, and takes a calm, quiet, clean bite. Table Manners Around the Globe and at the other end of the table, much to Belle’s dismay, the Beast tears into his food ravenously, getting oatmeal all over his jacket, making slobbering noises, and eventually wiping his face with his jacket sleeve. Belle gives a little gasp of horror, and enlists the help of Mrs. Potts and Chip to get him to use his spoon. Failing this, she encourages him to sip his oatmeal tamely and neatly, thus illustrating that her method of table manners are, in fact, superior and more civilized.
This scene is essentially the exact opposite of how a traveler should behave when confronted with different table manners in an unfamiliar country. Although travelers, when dining with locals, may encounter manners or behavior that seems mystifying, unhygienic, sloppy, or downright wrong, it is simply not the place of the traveler to put his or her host “straight.” As a guest in a foreign country, simply observe and attempt to emulate the locals’ behavior. No corrections are either in order or appropriate.
Travelers, especially to non-Western countries, may be faced with quite a few modes of manners that they have not seen before. What follows is a small sampling to get the idea, and is by no means exhaustive. The list is presented in order of “a slight modification on North American norms” to “completely different from anything a North American may have ever seen before”:
- In Russia, guests are expected to keep their wrists on the edge of the table, and to use the right hand for the knife and the left hand for the fork.
- In Portugal, refrain from asking for condiments unless they are already on the table. Asking for condiments, even salt and pepper, makes it seem as though you are dissatisfied with the cook’s food.
- Never, ever split the bill in France.
- Avoid clinking your glass to another glass in Sweden. While may people have been conditioned to believe this is welcoming and inclusive, in Sweden, this is vulgar, except during a very formal round of skals.
- Guests are expected to finish everything on their plate in India. No exceptions. Do not ask for a second helping unless you are positive you can finish all of it.
- In Tanzania, showing up for dinner on time is rude, so plan to arrive a quarter to a half an hour after the stated time.
- Slurping while eating noodles is expected and encouraged in Japan.
- In China, sticking chopsticks straight up and down into any kind of food indicates that that food is intended for the dead. Do not do this.
- Always leave a bit of food on your plate in the Philippines. If you do not do this, it is considered a sign to the host that he or she did not provide you with enough food.
- In Turkey, feel free to burp after a meal. It is considered polite and a sign that you feel satiated.
- Avoid pouring someone else the last drink from a bottle in Armenia. The person who takes the last drink must buy the next one. To be courteous, always take the last drink and then buy a new bottle.
- Last but not least, in Japan, never fill your own drink, as this can be seen as an admission that you are an alcoholic. If you fill the glass of the person next to you, that is a sign that he or she should reciprocate and fill your glass.
Again, by no means is this list exhaustive. If you are planning a trip, regardless of your destination, always familiarize yourself with basic etiquette (and feel free to double-check the list I have compiled here as well!). Guidebooks, basic online research, encyclopedia articles, and even travel shows on TV will help you get the feel for what is expected and proper in your particular destination. And remember that nothing beats a first-hand resource. If you know someone from the country you are visiting (someone who is actually from that country, not a descendant of people from that country), try to pick his or her mind on the topic. Nothing is more humiliating than the feeling that you have somehow offended your host or been rude or uncouth in some manner.
Essentially, it all comes down to preparation. Don’t ever approach a foreign country thinking that the table manners in which you have been conditioned will translate to this different society. You are certainly not going to be expected to have committed every single last tiny intricacy to your memory, but a broad or basic understanding of what is proper and what is unacceptable will go a very long way. And be prepared to poke fun at the way you approach table manners in your home country, as well. Just as their customs may be strange to you, yours will seem bizarre to them. Entertaining your hosts with self-deprecating stories about the silliness of your home country’s methods will go a long way towards endearing you to the people with whom you are sharing a meal.
Embrace every aspect of traveling – including the “weird” or “different” or “gross” table manners – as an opportunity to expand your horizons and consider things from a new perspective. Don’t approach a meal arrogantly, like Belle, assuming that you know best and attempt to change the way your hosts do things. Instead, take a more Ariel from The Little Mermaid approach. Eagerly stick that fork into your hair. Use the pipe as a bubble-blowing device. Don’t be afraid to try new things. You may never utilize those types of manners again outside of that one meal, but won’t it feel good to know you tried something new?
Postscript: Table manners can present an especially thorny problem for vegetarians. Many countries do not have vegetarian options on offer, and it can be very difficult to adhere to this way of life in some parts of the world. If you are a vegetarian and planning a trip, first research the country in question to determine the relative availability of vegetarian food. If it seems that vegetarianism is not going to be an option for you, you will have to make your own decision. Are you willing to eat meat for the duration of your time in that country? Will you be content nibbling on side items that do not contain meat? (Check to make sure that this will not be considered rude in your destination.) Regardless, whatever the situation, be sure that you are comfortable with the choice that you choose.
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