Intercultural Dining Etiquette and Table Manners

This week, a future mother-in-law wrote a enraged email to her step-son’s fiancee criticising her fussy eating habits and lack of table manners after her visit to their family home. The email went viral and was published in the Metro on Wednesday, and this piece of authentic material soon found its way to the English language school. In the staffroom, a debate ensued as to whether the future mother-in-law or the supposedly impolite girl in need of finishing school was to be blamed, and it soon became apparent that this would make for great discussions in our classes. Nevertheless, my colleagues weren’t sure if the article would be suitable for my low-intermediate class. Determined to grade the tasks (and discussions) and not the text, I brought the article into my classroom, and the discussion that actually emerged was more interesting than I could have ever expected.

It soon became obvious during the reading and discussions that the mother-in-law’s perception of what was good etiquette and appropriate manners was very culturally biased. And the following questions regarding etiquette arose:

When you are a guest at someone’s family home,

1. Do you normally wait for everyone (including the female hosts) to be seated before starting on your food? Should you say something before starting?

2. If you don’t like something, should you force yourself to eat it or do you find a way to refuse? What would you say?

3. Do you normally take small helpings of the side dishes (e.g. the potatoes, salads, etc.) throughout the meal, or do you take one big helping that will last you for the rest of your meal?

4. Should you finish everything on your plate or can you leave some if you have had enough?

Question number 1 initially seemed to invite unanimous responses of ‘yes’es’ but after some probing, it was revealed that in Japan and Thailand, the female hosts of more traditional families often remain standing, waiting to serve the guests, and don’t sit down to eat until everyone else has finished.

Question number 3 brought up some interesting cultural differences. Most Europeans thought it appropriate to pile on one big helping  onto one’s plate right at the start of the meal, but most Chinese students found this rude. A meal was meant to be an occasion for sharing, and the ‘this is my share and that is yours’ attitude didn’t go down very well with them. Taking just one piece from a side dish and eating it before going for another piece was the accepted approach.

In response to question 4, the Arabic students agreed that in some families, finishing the food on a plate would mean more is desired, and this would prompt the host to refill the empty dishes with more food. This would usually be pre-empted with an offer to refill the plate, which the guest can politely refuse, but if the host is unable to speak English well, they might enthusiastically refill the plate without asking.

This discussion prompted more questions about guest etiquette to be written up on the board and the discussion continued in groups.

5. What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s house? What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s wedding?

Most students agreed that something should be brought but the items ranged from wine to food, and even flowers. As for weddings, most Asian and Arabic students agreed that money should be given as a present, much to the surprise of the Europeans. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean students all insisted that the start of a couple’s life together would cost a lot of money, and therefore, the guests should be obligated to give more than the cost per head. A wedding would therefore bring in a profit for the happy couple to have a headstart in life. The Europeans, however, saw it as the happy couple treating their friends to a meal, and shared concepts such as wedding lists.

6. Where should you sit when at the dinner table? How should you sit? Where should you place your hands?

Some cultures had elaborate rules when it came to seating positions, which was often based on seniority, and which direction the host should face. The Japanese and Koreans agreed that it was rude to cross one’s legs in front of those more senior than oneself, but they disagreed as to how to place one’s hands. In the Japanese culture, both hands (and arms) should be seen above the table at all times. One hand ought to be holding the bowl of rice while the other hand held the chopsticks. The Koreans, on the other hand (no pun intended), found the holding of the bowl to be ‘beggar-like’ and insisted that the bowl should be left on the table, while one hand picks from it either with chopsticks, or more commonly, a spoon. Elbows, we all agreed, should be kept off the table.

7. Where do you place the cutlery to indicate you are still eating? Where do you place them to show that you have finished your meal?

Those that used knives and forks agreed that placing them side by side on the plate indicated that one had finished with the meal, but there was less agreement as to what to do with cutlery in the middle of the meal. Some suggested we should cross our knives and forks on our plates to indicate that we were not finished, but some were adamant that this was rude. The use of chopsticks was less familiar for the non-Oriental students, who were surprised to learn that one must never stick the chopsticks in their rice bowl as it resembled the incense used when praying to the dead. The Oriental students all agreed that placing the chopsticks back down on the table beside the bowl was the most polite way to do this, although the Korean and Japanese students reacted in horror when the Taiwanese students remarked that they also placed them together across the top of the bowl.

8. How many courses are usually served, and in which order?

Talking about courses reminded me of an experience I had with some Spanish visitors who came to London some years ago. They had wanted to try some Chinese food, so I had some dishes delivered. You probably already know this, but the Chinese don’t typically do ‘courses’, except for dessert and tea/coffee. All the dishes are placed in the centre of the table, and each person gets their own bowl of rice. One then takes what they want to eat from the dishes in the centre and ‘shares’ the meal with everyone at the table. But when I placed the dishes in the centre of the table, my Spanish friends started to eat out of the vegetable dish until it was empty, and then proceeded onto the Lemon Chicken. Despite my continual insistence that they had to mix all the dishes together, they stuck to their belief that the ‘salad’ had to come before the meat dish, and the rice came last. Imagine my shock when they finished off the meal chomping down on the plain rice in their bowls once all the dishes were done with!

9.  What do you normally drink with your meal? Are there any codes of behaviour to observe?

The Chinese students were keen to state that Chinese tea was usually drunk after the meal and not during, contrary to what Chinese restaurants in London would have you believe. The Japanese students, however, saw drinking green tea during the meal as totally normal. While the tea at the Chinese table should be refilled by the person seated closest to the teapot, when it comes to alcohol at the Japanese and Korean table,
it is customary for people to refill each other’s glasses/cups, and not one’s own. But the most interesting comment came from the Koreans, who said that when drinking alcohol in front of someone more senior, one should always turn away (about 90 degrees from the person with more seniority) and sip from their glass with their hands covering it.

10. How much time do you usually spend at the dinner table?

This brought up some stark differences. Most Europeans and South Americans saw dinnertime as time for communication with the rest of the family, and would spend anything from 1 hour to 4 hours at the dinner table. Those from the Far East were more efficient with their meal times and would typically finish a meal in 5-20 minutes, unless a guest was present.

This lesson went on for about 3 hours, throwing up lots of useful lexis and grammatical structures in addition to very useful speaking practice. The discussion/debate was definitely not about what I had expected it to be, but going with the flow definitely allowed us to learn so much more about each other. In a time of international business dealings, an understanding of the social norms and etiquettes of different cultures is becoming more important than ever. And lessons could be made so much more fruitful if we could kill two birds exchanging such information whilst providing practice of English. Meanwhile, on a more selfish level, I’ve learnt lots too.


Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

20 thoughts on “Intercultural Dining Etiquette and Table Manners”

  1. I’m sure it was a very interesting lesson. Just to add here that yesterday I was discussing the e-mail of the angry mother-in-law with my friends and among us it didn’t seem so demanding after all. Maybe she was rude in the way she said it but most of her demands seemed common sense to us. 🙂 So there you have it, another cultural difference to explore relationships with in-laws!

    1. That’s true, Anne. Most of the demands were relatively reasonable. It was the last sentence (I pity Freddie) that made me gasp. In class, we did discuss relationships with in-laws and it was quite funny how all the students unanimously said that mothers-in-law were stereotypically difficult to get along with! The class reached the conclusion that it was because mothers are protective of their sons and jealous of their daughters-in-law. Hahaha…I suppose some things are the same in all cultures… ; )

  2. You know, I heard about the viral email, but I never did check it out! Now I know what it is was all about. Must have been a wild lesson 🙂 Tell me Chia, how did you start the lesson off? Did you read the article, did you ask the students to read it silently, or did you ask some of them to read it aloud to the class?
    Your anecdote of the Spanish was funny! Haha.The Spanish have this expression: cabeza cuadrada, literally square-headed. Chomping away at the plain rice – they must have thought you were a bad cook, preparing such a tasteless dish!
    I’ve found that practically ALL Europeans find it goes against their grain of eating habits to not pile their plate full when eating from a ‘shared dishes’ table. I always try to tell them if you mix too many flavours, you don’t get to taste any! It’s almost as though they’re afraid there won’t be any left for them! And, it’s doubly strange with the Spanish as they have their tradition of tapas, which are meant to be ‘picked at’ and shared.

    1. Hi Chiew, good to hear someone after my own heart! Hahaha…
      The lesson started with a quick discussion of in-laws and the kind of relationships one usually have with the in-laws. (and of course pre-teaching the word ‘in-laws’)
      I then gave them 30 seconds to skim the email and decide whether the mother-in-law liked or didn’t like the future daughter-in-law.
      Then they read (silently to themselves) for more detailed understanding by counting the number of complaints there were in the email, and in pairs, explaining what they understood each complaint was about in their own words. I got them to do this by asking the question ‘What did the daughter-in-law do?’ Some of it was a bit more difficult to understand, so in the open class stage, where some weren’t clear, I concept-checked certain phrases, and scaffolded towards them understanding the gist of the complaint.
      Yeah, the Spanish mates did get me quite exasperated at that time. I said to my students that it was like me going to Italy and asking for the Bolognese sauce to be served first and then the Spaghetti after!
      I’ll tell you about this other strange thing I once saw. I was back in Singapore visiting family and went for the famous Singaporean specialty dish Chilli Crab. Of course, like any dish, you’d order one of it amongst other dishes (e.g. vegetables, prawns, chicken) and share it with your friends. I looked over and saw a table of 5 English tourists, each with a huge plate of Chilli crab in front of them and them trying to work through the dish with a bottle of Tiger Beer! It was hilarious! I think the owner of that restaurant must have thought all her Christmases had come at once when they ordered 5 Chilli crabs between them! What a profit she must have made!

      1. I hope none of the 5 was an ELT reading this right now! Haha. But that wasn’t too bad – perhaps they were hungry and had huge appetites. Listen to this – in an Indonesian restaurant in London, I saw this: A group of friends ordered some dishes. To share, naturally. Waiter brought a few dishes. Different dishes. One of them took the beef rendang (for those unfamiliar, this is one of the most well-known Indonesian dishes) and…
        poured it all onto his own plate!
        Well, ok, perhaps I was wrong, and he ordered it for himself. 😉
        I don’t remember the reaction of his friends, and, no, they didn’t do the same 🙂

  3. Interesting what you say about food habits. My wife is a trekie and I remember one episode I watched with her when some aliens visiting the starship suddenly left looking really offended. For ages the crew racked their brains trying to figure out what they had done to offend their guests. Later on the guests returned and when pressed, one of the delegation said “People were eating!” to which came the reply, “But don’t your people eat?” The alien was shocked by the question, “Yes of course we do! But we’d never dream of doing it in public!”

    I’ve lived in many places and experienced different cultures and my conclusion is that (generally speaking) people in Asia are more tolerant of other people’s habits – it’s actually a huge fascination for them to see things done differently. I remember visiting an old Japanese classmate at his home in Kawasaki. His first, and most useful advice to me was “Look, don’t get all hung up about Japanese culture, just be yourself!”

    Oh yes, by the way, in China (where I now live) rice is eaten last, just like the Spanish did it. In fact, when you go to a fancy restaurant in Beijing, the waitress or waiter will carefully wait until most of the other dishes have been eaten before bringing the rice. It’s us westerners, who like to eat the rice WITH the spicy food, who have to learn the Chinese for “Please bring the rice with the other dishes”. : )


    1. Which part of China, Chris? That’s the first time I’ve heard of rice being eaten on its own, after the rest of the dishes. How intriguing! I’ve got friends from Beijing, and they don’t eat like that. I’ve seen Chinese films (and not just Hong Kong flicks) and people are always shown holding a bowl of rice on one hand while the other hand picks up food from other dishes, with chopsticks, to eat with the rice.
      I live in Spain now, and the Spanish don’t eat ‘plain’ rice unless they’re eating Oriental. Their rich dishes are a ‘complete’ meal, meaning they have things like meat, vegetables, etc., so, of course, they’re eaten after salads and hors d’oeuvre. 🙂

    2. Chris, I love your Star Trek story. I think how tolerant one is towards other’s habits depends on so many things. Some people, regardless of nationality, are just simply more open and adaptable and others find it difficult to understand that there could be a different way of doing and seeing things. BTW, I agree with Chiew with regards to most parts of China having the rice with the dishes. I am Singaporean Chinese, and all the dialect groups who have ancestry going back to different regions of China all eat their rice with the different dishes. The only time when the different courses are served separately is during wedding dinners and very special banquet. That could be why the fancy restaurants do it. If you don’t mind my asking, which part of China do you live in?

  4. Hi Chiew and Chia,
    I’m in Beijing ~ have been for 8 years. I just went round the office to ask my Chinese colleagues about when they eat rice during a meal just to check I wasn’t going around the bend. Here’s what they said:

    When eating with family or friends, they’ll eat rice with the other dishes. When they eat lunch at work, it’s usually ‘gai fan’ which is something on rice (“gai” means cover and “fan” means rice).
    But when attending a formal or business lunch or dinner, the dishes will be served first so everbody can get down to business while they nibble on the dishes. At the end of the meeting, rice is served and this is a signal to everybody that the meeting (and meal) is coming to a close and everybody stops talking and focusses on eating up their rice.
    The host will call the waiter to pay the bill and the guests, especially the most senior guest, will make a big show of wanting to pay the bill instead but the host will insist and the guest will eventually accept and thank the host. The host will usually pass around cigarettes to the guests for one final smoke and toast of ‘baijiu’ before they all leave. If you’re not at the restaurant for a formal or business meal, you have to ask the waiter to serve the rice with the other dishes. So, in restuarants, especially those which are often used by business people, rice is normally served at the end of the meal unless you request otherwise.
    Having said all that, Beijing is in north China, where noodles and bread are normally the staple – rice is a southern thing. My wife is “old Beijing” and her family will eat noodles or bread buns more often than rice.

  5. …unless Chris was referring to ‘fried’ rice, which is a different kettle of fish. Since this already has its flavours, then it shouldn’t be mixed with other strong-flavoured dishes. The only time plain rich is served on its own is when one can’t afford anything else to go with it, or when one is too ill to consume anything else.

  6. Well yes, nobody eats plain rice alone unless they don’t have any choice – as you say Chiew, unless they are sick or impoverished. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t see the rice appearing until near the end of the meal, especially if you find yourself at a meeting amongst business people and/or government officials.

    On a similar note, I remember a course I did preparing Chinese students for a homestay in the UK. There were so many things to cover, such as what to say at breakfast and what kinds of things people talked about over dinner. I remember how amazed my students were by the idea of egg cups and breakfast cereal. I taught them what to do if somebody offers you something you don’t like, by asking “Do you have any…?” instead of saying “no, I don’t eat that” in reply to “Would you like some weetabix?”.

    1. Well, I’m already surprised, Chris! Actually, of course, I’d forgotten that the Northerners eat more flour-based food than rice-based, and that, in part, explains what you’ve been saying. I suppose it’s comforting to know that none of us was going round the bend!
      The other point I was chewing on was your mentioning formal/business meal a few times. Could it be that they serve plain rice at the end as a way of implying that they are well-off, that they can afford fancy dishes, that they don’t need rice? You know how they are on the issue of status over there, the ‘save face’ syndrome and all that… What’s your take?
      And, oh, breakfast is yet another ball game, no? Perhaps we shouldn’t start that…yet… haha

      1. You’re dead right Chiew. Before I got my current job, I was a director of a language school and had to attend a lot of Chinese banquets with various government officials and business people. Any kind of process, whether it be getting a business license or signing a contract with a new client involved a big formal meal. When I was the host, I’d have to order some lavish dishes to give my guests ‘face’ as well as show off how well our school was doing (even if it wasn’t). I’d have to order some exotic dishes and definitely some seafood as this is the most expensive on the menu. As a host, you’d really lose face if, at the end of the meal, all the food had been eaten up; there should be some food left uneaten in the center of the table – that shows you have treated your guests well.
        I was relieved when I moved on from that job as I was getting tired of all the meals, drinking and smoking that went on at these banquets, even though I don’t smoke!
        A friend of mine works in sales in south China and he has to go out for meals and drinking for business almost every night. It’s a great way to learn different facets of the local culture – I definitely learned a lot – but it’s quite hard on the family.

    2. Thanks Chris, for doing the research and asking your colleagues. That’s really interesting coz I’ve never heard of plain rice being served at the end of the meal. Even at a wedding dinner, we are offered rice with the courses and at the end, just before desert, that might be a fried rice or fried noodles dish… I think, an alternative explanation to Chiew’s might be that the businessmen are just snacking on the dishes while discussing business and talking shop, and aren’t really having a meal as such, and when business is done with, the rice is served as a signal to start the meal proper?
      BTW, I like what you said Chris about ways of refusing food. Very useful stuff…

      1. Hi Chia,
        Yes that course was very interesting. I remember teaching them the vocab for how food is prepared and the basic ingredients (“it’s lamb chop marinated in mint sauce and then grilled”) so my Chinese students could ask about items on a menu if they ever ventured into a non-Chinese restaurant. Another thing I did (a tip from a friend) was give them a list of foods they should try while in the UK (like stilton cheese, marmite, cornish pasty etc) and with a space next to each item for them to add comments and give a rating. We had some classes when they returned from the UK and they all said stilton cheese was like “stinky tofu” in that they didn’t like the smell but enjoyed the taste.

  7. you can add another ingredient to all this …..different countries/cultures have different formulations… eat breakfast like a king lunch like a ??? and dinner like a pauper
    eat breakfast alone share your lunch with a friend and give your dinner to your enemy etc

  8. Hiya Chia, great article!

    by the way, what Chris said about rice being served last in China is true. I remember on my trips to Beijing as well as Shanxi, that was the case for all our meals. Seems that typically rice or noodles or other forms of starch are considered as “filler” foods… the dishes are typically served first and guests are expected to enjoy the tastes of the dishes, before filling your gut with rice/ noodles after that. My group were all Singaporean Chinese and we found it so wierd to eat the dishes without the starch that we always had to ask for it to be served together, if not first.

    The other thing your article reminded me about was people requesting for condiments at a meal. I noticed that many of my friends ask for condiments at a meal, despite whether it is really required of the dish. Imagine asking for tobasco or chilli sauce for a western course like steak or lamb chop. I think in certain cultures and situations, such requests can be construed or misunderstood as an insult to the cook/chef. I have also seen friends who would pack loads of chilli sauce packets in their luggage on a trip to China, which leads me to wonder sometimes – are they tasting the dish or are they tasting chilli sauce with the dish as a condiment. 🙂

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