Unexpected Table Manners Around the World Slideshow
April 15, 2015
Do's and don'ts for the international traveler that go way beyond keeping your elbows off the table.
Andes, South America
In parts of Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, diners pay respect to the Andean equivalent of Mother Earth by spilling the top of their drink to the ground and saying “Para la Pachamama” in a ritual called “ch’alla.” To make an offering to the goddess of fertility and harvest, some give an absentminded tipping of the glass, while others flick their drinks with two fingers. It's a little like pouring one out for your homies, only a bit more ritualistic.
Table manners in Afghanistan dictate that guests are supposed to eat first, eat the most, and should be seated furthest from the door. Guests who accidentally drop their bread should pick it up, kiss it, and raise it to their foreheads before setting it back down. And, as is the case with countries in the Middle East, Africa, and India, food is only eaten with the right hand, as the left hand has a disgraced reputation for its involvement with bathroom-related activities.
The Chinese have a wide range of do’s and don’ts related to chopsticks. Do hold them with your right hand. Don’t point them at another person, bang them up and down, or wave them around, no matter how emphatically you’re trying to make a point. When not in use, rest them on the chopstick rest or on one’s plate. Don’t penetrate your food with them. And no matter what, don’t stick them upright in a bowl of rice, because that evokes a sense of death.
In parts of Ethopia, there is a tradition called “gursha” which involves people feeding each other with their bare hands. “A family from Addis Ababa invited me and my sister for lunch,” said Diana Tubbs, who works for Intrepid Travel and experienced a gursha first hand. "We were all sitting in a circle on the floor, in the middle a small table, about 10 people. Our host started scooping up some of the meat, vegetables and sauces and fed the person sitting next to her. Then she continued doing that with every person sitting in the circle. Once she fed everyone, the person sitting next to her started doing the same thing, feeding everyone sitting in the circle. By the time we were done eating I had everyone's fingers in my mouth at least once and of course I got to feed everyone sitting there as well. It was quite the experience.”
The Japanese have a rep for refined and elaborate table manners, but when it comes to noodle soups, they slurp, and you can too. In fact, those who slurp their soups are showing appreciation to their hosts for the meal. However, both caution and common sense warn against slurping too hard: Splattering isn’t cool, and be careful — no one wants a noodle shooting too quickly down the throat.
If you’re trying to be a good guest in the Philippines, be ready to wait. It’s polite to wait to be asked before sitting for dinner, and to wait to be told where to sit, and to wait to be told when to start eating. If you’re hungry for seconds, well, you guessed it: Manners dictate you wait until your host offers you more.
Inuit Regions, Canada
The Inuit people of Canada won’t give you a dirty look if you burp after dinner — for them it’s an expression of thanks and appreciation for the meal. What has become culturally commonplace there may have a biological origin: Scientists who have studied their particularly healthy cardiovascular systems have found that they consume large amounts of omega 3s, which even in fish oil capsules make many people belch.
In parts of Korea, it is commonplace for diners spit the bones of fish to the table or ground. This can be a bit awkward for first time Western visitors. Jasmine Kaloudis is a Philadelphia-based yoga instructor who taught English in Korea for nine months and met her match there. “I got to watch my future mother-in-law eat fish in front of me,” she remembers. "My jaw dropped. I was trying to avert my eyes and not grimace, but it was just the two of us eating and hard to ignore.”
In rural Zambia, it is common to eat a dried-out mouse, or “mbewe,” as an appetizer, but manners dictate that you start with the head, move on to the body, and that you never eat the tail. Intrepid Travel manager David Rousseau found this out when he traveled to a small village called Katete en route to the Zambia/Malawi border. There mice, rich in protein and affordable, were completely acceptable, but not the tail. “Use it to clean your teeth,” he was advised.
Mongolian table manners are closely tied to their nomadic lifestyle. “Herding is a job around the clock,” said Nomadic Expeditions guide Undraa Buyannemekh. “There are not really ‘tables’ where the family sits around and eats, and nomads arrange their daily activities around the hours of nature.” If, however, everyone is home to share a meal, manners dictate that the woman of the family give the “deej,” or first bite, to the head of the family. Guests and family members should accept food with their right hands and cover their bowls with a hand to indicate when they have had enough... perhaps of that interesting-looking Mongolian sausage...