We teach our children to eat quietly, use utensils, and finish everything on their plate. But in some other cultures, these mealtime behaviors might actually be considered rude. In some places, burping and slurping are perfectly acceptable and cleaning your plate is an insult. "What we think of as good manners in our culture may not be so in another," says Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and director of The Etiquette School of New York and author of The Art of the Meal: Simple Etiquette for Simply Everyone. "When you're around people from a different culture it's important to know their customs, because you might insult them without even realizing it." Here are some quirky dinnertime traditions from other lands.
The people of Ethiopia have a tradition of hand-feeding each other, called gursha. It's a gesture of hospitality that builds trust and social bonds between those sharing the food.
Diners in Europe never rest their hands in their laps; rather, they place their wrists on the table. "They probably started doing that originally to show that they weren't hiding a weapon," Napier-Fitzpatrick explains. Keep in mind that European meals tend to last much longer than those in America. Children from those countries are used to this, but you might be better off leaving your kids behind unless you're sure they can handle sitting patiently for a long while.
In Greek households, guests are often offered second and third helpings insistently. Go ahead and take more -- it's a compliment to your host.
In many Muslim cultures, people use only their right hand to eat, eschewing utensils. Why not both hands? "The left hand, traditionally used for [maintaining] hygiene, is considered unclean," Napier-Fitzpatrick explains. Also, if you drop bread on the ground, pick it up, kiss it, and raise it to your forehead before putting it back on your plate. This shows respect for your food and the work that went into making it.
East and South Asia
In Japan and China, slurping your noodles shows appreciation for the meal. The host takes all the noise as a compliment. Placing chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice at the end of the meal is a faux pas (this is how food is offered to the spirit of a dead person). Instead, place them on your plate or use the chopstick rest.
Finishing everything on your plate is a no-no in many Asian countries, as it suggests that your hosts didn't feed you enough. "They'll keep refilling it, and if they run out, they'll be upset that they didn't have enough food for you," Napier-Fitzpatrick says. Leaving a small amount on your plate symbolizes that you've had your fill and acknowledges your host's generosity. And don't refill your own glass, even if you're thirsty. Fill someone else's cup and wait for her to reciprocate.
Among the indigenous people of China and Taiwan (as well as the indigenous Inuit people of Canada), a light burp at the end of a meal is considered a compliment, as it indicates that you've eaten well. Tipping your waiter at a restaurant in Japan is an insult. "It's implying that he's not making enough money and is thus treating him menially," Napier-Fitzpatrick says.
In India, food is deemed contaminated once it touches your plate, so you shouldn't offer anyone -- even your spouse -- a taste. Before the meal you're expected to wash your hands and your mouth. Licking your fingers shows your host how much you enjoyed the food. Don't say "Thank you" to your host at the end of the meal; it's considered a form of payment. Simply return the favor by inviting her to dinner.
Central and South America
When eating out in Mexico, haggling over paying the bill is very common. "They like to make a show of it," Napier-Fitzpatrick says. "You should reciprocate by inviting your dinner companion to another meal and insisting ahead of time that it will be your treat."
In Chile, taking a second helping is offensive. You must wait for your host to offer you more food.
Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.