I remember being horrified the first time I saw it, a grown man spitting fish bones onto the tablecloth at a business dinner in China. I wondered who had invited him. Later I learned that spitting bones on the table is normal dining etiquette in China. Why, because it is considered rude to pull bones out of your mouth with your fingers. People will spit fish bones and other inedible pieces of food into a pile on the table beside their plate to avoid touching the food in their mouth with their hands.
In Chile they take the touching of food with fingers further. You must not touch any food with your fingers. Even French fries must be eaten with a knife and fork.
But travel across to Ethiopia, India or Pakistan you will be expected to eat with your hands. But, only your right hand as it is the height of rudeness to use your left hand, as that is unclean!
In France the rules over touching food are not so strict, however, you must always keep your hands visible. When dining with the French keep your hands on the table, never on your lap. Some say this custom goes back to medieval days when people carried hidden daggers.
Another quirk to remember when in France is to never cut your lettuce salad with a knife. Instead, you must master the art of folding it around your fork to eat it. Likewise in Italy the locals will consider it the height of rudeness to cut your spaghetti. One must twirl it magically around the fork with the help of a spoon.
Yet, if you end up at a table in Thailand, a fork is almost redundant. The only use for one is to rake your food onto your spoon for eating. You must never bring food to your mouth on your fork.
If all these rules of engagement with cutlery leave you feeling confused, don’t think that it is any easier when you are in a country that uses chopsticks. In fact there are even more traps of rude behavior one can unwittingly fall into when using two pieces of wood to eat.
In Japan standing your chopsticks in a bowl of rice is not just rude, it is taboo. This is how the food offerings for the dead are presented; so don’t insult your host with this classic mistake.
Never pass food to each other using chopsticks. This is how cremated remains are sorted after a funeral. You don’t want your host thinking about that at the dinner table.
Chopsticks are only for eating. Not for making noise with or pointing with. Playing with them is seen as bad mannered just as playing with cutlery is. Your chopsticks should never be pointed at or touch another person.
In China, you can pick up your bowl and hold it to your mouth while using the chopsticks to shovel the food into your mouth. But you must not bite on the chopsticks or leave them too long in your mouth and it is also considered gross to suck on them.
Finally, only use the serving chopsticks to move food from the main dish to your plate. Do not make the mistake of using serving chopsticks to eat with.
All these rules to remember will make you want to reach for a drink. But, not so fast, if you are still in China or Japan you should never refill your own glass at the table. The only way to politely get a refill of your glass is to offer to refill another guest’s glass. Then they will return the favor and refill yours. Refilling your own glass is seen as rude and selfish.
The English also have a few particular customs, especially around their beloved tea drinking. When you are stirring your tea do not let the spoon clink against the cup unless you want your host to cringe. After stirring the cup always remove the teaspoon, never leave it standing in your cup. Once you have finished stirring the proper place for your teaspoon is on the saucer.
If you prefer coffee in Italy to tea in England, then it is best you know that it is considered strange to order a cappuccino after a meal. While not rude, it will certainly set you apart as a tourist in a country where only an espresso is ordered after a meal. The reason? According to Italians, milk hinders digestion.
With all these rules to remember in order to avoid being rude, it might be a light relief to know where you can behave in ways we would consider rude.
In China it is not rude to leave food on your plate. In fact, it is best if you don’t finish everything on your plate. By leaving a small amount of food you are highlighting the generosity of your host for supplying more than you can eat. And, the bonus is you get to leave behind anything that was not to your particular taste.
If you are worried that the amount of food you have left on your plate might offend your host, a large burp is fully acceptable as a sign that you appreciated the good food your host has provided.
Still in China, you are free to light up a smoke in the middle of dinner and no one will blink an eye. Be prepared that other diners will be puffing away and breathing smoke over the food. Perhaps in time, this rule will change but until now, it has never been considered rude to smoke and eat.
Slurp and make as much noise as you like while eating noodles in Japan. Making such a noisy meal out of a bowl of noodles is not only not rude it will make your host happy as it shows you are heartily enjoying the meal.
It is also perfectly ok to stuff your face full of food, especially if you are eating sushi. It is considered rude to bite a sushi piece in half, but not rude to shove the whole piece in your mouth. So go ahead and enjoy the chance to fill your cheeks with sushi without shame. After all, keeping up with all of these international table etiquettes can really work up one’s appetite.