Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Table Manners

Oh my goodness, I am getting old.  The other night at dinner, I found myself watching some children at a Chinese restaurant, and noticing all the things they were doing wrong, which I as a child would have been disciplined for.  I'm not sure when I turned into an etiquette nazi, but these little things also reminded me of the new rules I had to learn when we arrived in New Zealand decades ago.  I can't begin to imagine how many mistakes I must make at restaurants of other ethnicities, from not knowing the unwritten norms of behaviour.

I expect some rules are universal.  I would be pretty surprised if there were a culture somewhere where people would not consider you ill-mannered if you broke one of these:
  • don't lick your bowl or plate
  • don't take more than your fair share of a group dish
Other rules are more culture specific.  I've tried to write down all the ones I could think of, but I would love to hear of other people's experiences too.

Chinese Etiquette

I don't know if the guidelines I have been taught are Chinese etiquette, or specific to my area or family.  Some things, like
  • use communal chopsticks (or serving spoons/forks) to bring food from the shared plates to your own bowl
were brought into effect later on, perhaps due to greater health awareness after a number of Asian bird flu pandemic scares.  Some restaurants offer chopsticks in another colour to make it easier to differentiate between personal and communal serving chopsticks, but at other restaurants, you have to ask even to get extra chopsticks of the same colour.  As I said though, the use of communal chopsticks was a relatively new rule, and I remember I was surprised when a Taiwanese friend came over for dinner over a decade ago and asked if it was okay to pick up food with her own chopsticks, since there were no serving chopsticks on the table.

The fact that the kids the other night used their own chopsticks to grab food from the centre of the table and put it straight into their mouths also broke some other rules my father would remind us of:
  • bring your bowl up to the plate of food you are taking from
  • always put the food into your bowl first, even if it is just a quick dab onto your rice before you put it into your mouth, and
  • always bring your bowl up to your mouth to eat, rather than bending down to the table or eating with your bowl at a great distance (this is very different from Korean etiquette, where bringing a bowl up to your mouth is considered rude)
Perhaps he made those up to stop us from dripping sauce all over the table.

Some rules are just general politeness, such as:
  • don't pick through the dishes, though you can select the best bits for someone else, such as an elder
  • don't reach across the table or pick food from the far side of the plate from where you are sitting (飛象過河/飞象过河, lit. "flying elephant crosses river", a reference to the rule in Chinese chess where the elephant is not allowed to cross the river, and perhaps also to the distance travelled by your chopsticks)
  • pour tea for others before pouring for yourself
Others are more chopstick-specific Chinese rules, for instance:
  • don't put your chopsticks sticking up in a bowl of rice (because this alludes to the ritual of burning incense for the dead)
  • don't use your chopsticks to point at other people
And if you are the host:
  • offer far too much food.  There must be leftovers
After the meal, if you have some food stuck in your teeth:
  •  always cover your mouth with your free hand while you are using a toothpick with the other
Then there are the tea-related signals or gestures:
  • if someone pours you tea, thank them by tapping gently two or three times on the table with bent index and middle fingers.  I believe this is a Cantonese thing, and the story goes that this came about because in the Qing Dynasty, the emperor liked to travel around incognito.  When he poured tea for a servant, the servant could not kowtow in public, because that would give away the emperor's disguise.  Instead, he made this small hand gesture to signify the kneeling and bowing he would have done
  • when the teapot is empty, leave it with the lid ajar (but still on the teapot)
It looks like there are a lot of rules to remember for Chinese table manners, but there are equally many in Western culture, though you may not realise it if you have been brought up with them.

Western Etiquette

The first thing which is different in Western dining is that you use different utensils for eating.  I just about knew how to use a knife and fork, but the first time I had a multi-course meal I was stumped.  It is not obvious that you should
  • use your cutlery from the outside in
though I guess you might have noticed some slight difference in the size of the implements.

Cutlery humour from imgur.
Everyone has their own plate of food, so although you would also wait at a Chinese table for everyone to be ready, there is more of a delay at a Western meal to
  • wait for everyone at the table to receive their food before beginning to eat
Once you are actually allowed to start your meal, there are any number of rules you should observe, such as:
  • don't put your elbows on the table
  • don't talk with your mouth full
  • close your mouth while chewing
  • don't slurp your soup
  • don't smack your chops.  In fact, make as little noise as possible
  • don't blow on hot food to cool it down.  Stir hot soup, or simply wait for the food to cool
  • cut your food into small enough pieces for a mouthful.  Never lift a large food item and take a bite from only part of it
  • eat slowly; don't put so much food in your mouth that you have bulging cheeks
  • don't put a knife into your mouth or lick it
  • respect the table cloth, i.e. avoid drips and don't pile your bones on the table
  • when you are using a knife, the fork should be in your left hand with the tines pointing down; when using a fork on its own, it may be in your right hand
Then there are the cutlery positioning signals:
  • when you are taking a break from eating, leave your cutlery at a diagonal, with the tines of your fork pointing down
  • when you have finished eating, place your cutlery together side by side in the middle of your plate, with the tines of your fork pointing up
I've also noticed that at a restaurant, waitstaff
  • never stack plates on the table when clearing the dishes
Other Cultures

I don't have much of an idea about table manners in other cultures, though I do know that for Indian cuisine, you should always eat with your right hand, and wash your hands before and after the meal.  In Malaysia, after eating banana leaf rice, you fold the top of the leaf down to signify that you enjoyed your meal, or fold the bottom up (away from you) to signal it was was not satisfactory.

What else do I need to know to avoid becoming an uncouth barbarian in other parts of the world?


  1. Hehe I LOVE this post and am soooooo forwarding it to my guile husband!!! Brings back so many cringe worthy moments, when you're out with kiwi friends for BYO chinese and they play drums with the chopsticks or rifle through dishes. Shudder... :P

  2. Haha, I've experienced some of those moments, though I have to say I routinely cause my friends great embarrassment too, by pulling out my camera for just about everything. :)


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